What is it?
Better known in the West by the name “cheongsam”, it is a fitted dress, which is usually long and made of embroidered silk, worn by Chinese women for more formal occasions.
The key features of the qípaó are its mandarin (or stand-up) collar, wrap dress style, snug fit and thigh splits. Everything else is pretty much negotiable – it can have any combination of sleeve, hem or split lengths or styles and a variety of textures, patterns and colours for the fabric, piping or buttons. And it is in this variation that the qípaó can convey different looks.
A more wholesome and fresh look, à la Tang Wei as an innocent student at the beginning in “Lust Caution”, can be achieved with a more pastel palette, higher neckline, longer sleeve and by wearing the hair down and straight.
But the qípaó is just as suited for sexy. Here is Tang Wei again in the same movie post her transformation as a seductress. The difference some bright colours, bold patterns and see through material make! And all this with no cleavage or midriff in sight.
My favourite interpretation of the qípaó however is the more classic take in Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love” (featuring a staggering 23 gorgeous pieces). The pattern on this sleeveless version, which also has a taller collar for visually slimming the face, is nothing short of breathtaking. Maggie Cheung in this dress is a perfect sample of the demure, gentle and delicate Chinese femininity which is wonderfully alluring in its subtlety and elegance.
Fun historical facts
Although seen as the traditional dress of choice for Chinese women, qípaó is neither Chinese nor traditional!
Qípaó literally means “Manchurian robe” – it was originally worn by the Manchus, who were the non-ethnically Han Chinese rulers of the last imperial dynasty of China. Manchuria is in modern-day north-eastern China bordering Mongolia.
It enjoyed its first big moment in the fashion spotlight belatedly in the 1920s. (And here is a Coco-Cola poster of the times to prove how modern a qípaó -wearing lady was!)
This may partly have been to do with the fact that the early qípaó designs were anything but flattering to the female figure and more closely resembled an elaborately embroidered sack. Thankfully, the fashion conscious ladies of Shanghai of the era demanded tighter (fit), shorter (hemline) and higher (splits) and that is the version which we see today. The qípaó has come in and out of vogue a number of times since then but has seen a huge revival in recent years, particularly as an alternative to the big white dress in wedding photos.
How do you wear it?
To achieve the classic look, when wearing a qípaó, your hair should always be perfectly coiffed (think Betty Draper) and generally up is better than down. Pumps or court shoes in a block colour would be the perfect match, depending on the colour of your qípaó. Red lippy and nails go a long way in completing the look, as do brooches and pearls. And for a real vintage touch, why not also bring out the (dare I say skin-coloured) stockings!
For a modern look, cue Kate Moss in this gorgeous and flirty version (the cap sleeves really enhance the long and slender lines formed by the arms):
And for the cosplay fans, Chun-Li (I’m sure the thigh splits are for functional purposes only):
The most important tip of all is that the beauty of the qípaó is all about the silhouette and so don’t be afraid to pull out the Spanx!
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