The evolution of the qipao, from ‘Suzie Wong’ to ‘In the Mood for Love’

May 27, 2020

The form-fitting dress, also known as cheongsam, traces back to the Qing Dynasty and has evolved over time into a favorite of film stars and socialites.

Twenty years ago, Maggie Cheung dazzled viewers when she appeared in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love in an elegant, form-fitting traditional Chinese dress known as qipao 旗袍.

Over the course of the film, she would emerge in a succession of 21 distinct designs, each so form-fitted to her character, Mrs. Chan, that it seemed like she had been poured into them.

Tailored to tightly hug a woman’s figure, the qipao—also known by the Cantonese cheongsam 长衫—is often characterized by a high, starched mandarin collar. The dress itself is asymmetrically fastened at the chest by a series of knotted buttons.

Maggie Cheung (left) and Tony Leung in a still from “In the Mood for Love.”
Maggie Cheung (left) and Tony Leung in a still from “In the Mood for Love.”

Set in 1962, In the Mood for Love is a delicate ode to the qipao in its heyday, when they could be seen everywhere on the streets of Hong Kong.

Yet the garment traces its roots to the turn of the 20th century, in a time of immense political and cultural upheaval in China.

Where did the qipao come from?

The qipao can trace its origins to the changpao 长袍, or long robes, of the Qing Dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 to 1912.

For four centuries, the changpao served as the compulsory dress for the Manchu administrative caste, distinguishing them from commoners.

Eventually, it began trickling down to become the national dress for both ordinary folk and the literati alike.

A woman wearing a qipao in Shanghai, circa 1935.
A woman wearing a qipao in Shanghai, circa 1935. / Photo: Hong Kong Museum of History

It quickly took root in the coastal city of Shanghai, where American, British, French, and Russian merchants and diplomats mingled with the local population and imported their Western ideals of beauty. Soon, the qipao as we know it began to take shape.

(Read more: Shanghai’s oldest jazz band has kept the music going for over 80 years)

From the 1940s onwards, designs saw the knotted buttons become a merely decorative feature while a back zipper secured the dress for the sake of convenience.

Sleeves could range in length from just above the elbow to no sleeves at all, although fitted cap sleeves that just cover the shoulders are the most popular option today.

The qipao’s ascendance would be stalled by two calamities: World War II and the subsequent Chinese Civil War.

Lengthwise, history has seen the qipao range from floor-length to below the knee, and given the narrow, fitted nature of the garment, side slits were essential to allowing a degree of movement while flashing a bit of skin.

Shanghai’s high society was thoroughly enamored by the qipao. Mass-market cigarette ads featured models in qipao, cementing the style as the new standard of modernity.

But the qipao’s ascendance would be stalled by two calamities: World War II and the subsequent Chinese Civil War.

How Hong Kong inherited the qipao’s legacy

In the chaos, Shanghai’s best tailors fled to the safe haven of Hong Kong, where they continued to ply their craft, just as the Communist Party precipitated a wholesale erasure of Chinese heritage in the mainland.

It was in Hong Kong during the 1950s and ’60s that the qipao saw a second golden age.

In the midst of a manufacturing boom, Hong Kong women increasingly began to enter the workforce, many of them choosing to wear a more utilitarian version of office wear that featured simpler patterns and lighter fabrics, such as cotton and linen, to deal with the hot climate.

Those who couldn’t afford to have a qipao tailored instead sewed their own using patterns from women’s magazines and cheap fabrics such as hemp.

Tapered waists and darts taken from Western dressmaking made their way into the qipao for a more slender silhouette.

Those who couldn’t afford to have a qipao tailored instead sewed their own using patterns from women’s magazines and cheap fabrics such as hemp.

This trend coincided with the increasing prestige of Hong Kong’s film industry, and the qipao accordingly made star appearances on the likes of Linda Lin, Li Xianglan, and most famously, Nancy Kwan in The World of Suzie Wong (1960).

Nancy Kwan (right) and William Holden in a still from “The World of Suzie Wong.”
Nancy Kwan (right) and William Holden in a still from “The World of Suzie Wong.”

The qipao had undeniably become synonymous with Hong Kong fashion.

As the 1970s and ’80s rolled around, the qipao could not compete with the city’s hunger for Western fashion and soon fell out of favor. The dress had, by this point, trickled down to becoming the uniform of choice for waitresses at banquet restaurants, thus removing any mystique that it had built up over the years.

(Read more: The fashion designer making Tibetan clothes hip for the millennial generation)

Relegated to weddings and other special occasions, the qipao would not see another revival until the seminal In the Mood for Love was released in 2000, inspiring a new generation to reclaim this symbolic dress.

“Over the past few years, there have been many more young women wearing it, maybe even more than the older generation,” says Kan Hon-wing, a third-generation qipao tailor at Mei Wah Fashion in Hong Kong. “It will never go out of style. People will always wear it because it is precious. Nothing else can take its place.”

Adapted from an article first published in STYLE.

ArtisansFashionFilmHong KongWong Kar-waiExplainer

Credit

Producer: Clarissa Wei

Videographer and Editor: Mario Chui

Fixer: Cardin Chan

Mastering: Victor Peña