The Chinese Cheongsam: All Is Revealed.

my one and only cheongsamA new color, a different fabric, a button here, a collar there … That’s how fashion designers keep us interested season after season. Every few years they make a bigger change, often one that’s directly related to our bodies and how much of them we show.

Skinny jeans that reveal our derrieres have been in style for a while now. So have sleeveless dresses. (Thank you, Michelle Obama.) For a long time waistlines were out. Now they’re in. We don’t see as many bare midriffs as we did in the 1970s. Maybe that’s next.

Historically, though, women’s clothing has been more about hiding the female form than in revealing it. And yet, even those floor-length Victorian dresses often had low-cut necklines. And Japanese women covered by their kimonos still bared the backs of their necks.

qipao, times past, sm., image by Dennis Jarvis, wikimedia commonsFor centuries in China, the high-class female body was well hidden. Then in 1920s Shanghai, the cheongsam (also known as the qipao) was born, and suddenly everything was revealed: arms, breasts, waistline, hips, buttocks, and legs. The Manchu dress on which it was modeled was wide and loose, covering everything except the wearer’s head, hands, and toes.

qipao, sm. from Chinatodayqipao, from wikimedia, 410px-Zhou_Xuan_by_C.H.Wong_Photo_StudioNot long after the Qing Dynasty was overthrown, the dressmakers in Shanghai found a way to totally revamp the Manchu dress. They nipped it in at the waist, cut off the sleeves, shortened the skirt, and cut a slit up the side. Celebrities, the upper class, and courtesans were the first to wear the daring style.

Meanwhile, in the West, the flapper look of the 1920s required a flattened bust under a straight-line chemise or a loose low-waist dress. The main things a “flapper” revealed were her arms and legs. It wasn’t until the 1930s that fashion in America and Europe began to reveal every part of the female form. (See “The Way We Look Now” in The Atlantic, May 2014.)

qipao,mother's6In my novel, Tiger Tail Soup, the women all wear cheongsams for some occasions. It was the 1930s and ‘40s, and the cheongsam was popular all over China. Upper- and middle-class women had cheongsams for summer and winter, for parties and for everyday wear. Some dresses were long; others, short or knee-length. They had high slits and slits that were more modest.

a full-length winter cheongsam lined with rabbit fur

a full-length winter cheongsam lined with rabbit fur

In 1949 when the Communists came to power, the cheongsam disappeared in Mainland China in favor of more simple wear. It survived, however, in Hong Kong and among the Overseas Chinese throughout the world. In recent years, it has made a comeback in China, where it’s worn now on special occasions.

You can find qipaos/cheongsams on-line in every price range, from under $100 for a simple ready-made dress to over $1000 for an exclusive tailor-made style. Just one warning: A fitted cheongsam shows every curve and bulge. Plus, you have to stand up straight and hold your tummy in when you’re wearing one. When you’re sitting, you have to squeeze your knees together. And it’s not a good idea to sit on the floor in a cheongsam.

Qipao_woman, from wikimediaHave you ever worn a cheongsam/qipao? Do you have a closet full of them?

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About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen
Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She’s working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early ’90s.

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33 comments


  1. You look gorgeous in a cheongsam! Thanks for sharing!




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  2. I have never worn one. These days, my skirts are loose and flowing . . . not constricting my movements in any way.




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    • I don’t wear many dresses these days–usually pants, and the dresses or skirts tend to be loose. But I remember the days of tight undergarments and fitted dresses.




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  3. Love your picture with the qipao, you look great wearing it. I enjoyed reading your explanation how the Manchu dress was changed to a qipao.

    I once bought a simple qipao for the wedding of my brother and got a different kind for my own wedding (although I’m not sure if that one would still be called qipao, it was a mix of styles). Unfortunately, there haven’t been many occasions where I thought wearing a qipao would have been appropriate, but it’s becoming more popular to wear qipaos in everyday life.




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  4. I have seen in the streets of xi’an several time women in that dress. In the Muslim street are many shops offering them and tailoring them according to your wishes. My wife tried one but decided against it 🙂




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  5. So glad our styles allow more flexibility. I’d find it difficult to be slimmed into a qipao for my day-to-day life: bending, stretching, lifting young children, weeding flower beds. How did they manage (or did they wear something else for daily chores)?




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    • I’ve seen photos of women doing light work in simpler, less fitted cheongsams. The skin-tight, silk brocade dresses would be for parties. I’ve also noticed that older women tend to wear cheongsams/ qipaos that are less fitted.




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  6. They are beautiful but my days of wearing anything that isn’t super comfy are over. Now 30 years ago……




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  7. I really love the qipao, I think it is classy, feminine yet daring. Unfortunately, I think it is the most unforgiving dress: I tried it once and I found it really made me look like a salami.

    But hey, if a girl is lucky enough to have a perfect body, then she will rock it!




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    • That’s the one problem with a qipao: it reveals everything, the good and the bad–although I think a good dressmaker should be able to design one that is flattering to her customer.




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  8. Ohhh La La!

    Nicki you look gorgeous in a cheongsam. I totally LOVE this blog THE most — it’s about fashion, one of my top three loves.

    Yes, in answer to your question: I had a cheongsam in the 1990s. I was dating a man who was smitten with ‘the look’ and I bought it in Seattle’s Chinatown — so authentic and gorgeously black with an embroidered red peacock design. I wore my hair straight back in an elaborate chignon and slipped into my cheongsam for THE most special occasions.




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  9. I really love to read your posts, but sadly I have some problems – clicking following doesn’t work so I subscribed to follow you via e-mail, but it still doesn’t send me a message when you publish a new post 🙁 any ideas how to solve this?




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    • I wish I knew more about the technological aspect of blogging or had someone to consult. Here are some of the things I’ve been told: I’m sure you know to confirm your subscription when you get an email and to check your spam folder. Here’s some advice I received from the WordPress forum: “You can ask the people who are having trouble to go to http://subscribe.wordpress.com . There they can enter their email address; an email will go to them with a link to manage their subscriptions. Alternatively, you can ask them to contact us at http://jetpack.me/contact-support/ and we’ll help them out there.”

      It shouldn’t be so hard. I’m sorry. I’ll see if I can come up with any other ideas.




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  10. I totally agree on the word “revealing” on Cheongsam. It’s not the sleeveless factor but the bulges it reveals as soon as it is worn.
    I remember my late Grandma wearing one on the 75th anniversary of our family restaurant in 1995. She told me that it was the most “daring” outfits she had ever worn, ever. (It’s funny though that she had no gut to wear them when she was young. She had very nice figure) 😀




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  11. Very nice blog, NIcki. I’m very interested in your Chinese tales having been there now six or so times. It is a culture I find fascinating on so many levels.




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  12. May

    Glad to have stumbled on to your blog and discovered your book! You look absolutely lovely in your Qipao! I love the the Qipao and collect them to wear. It is a real pity for women to shy away from wearing the Qipao when they love them, I try to advocate wearing them on my blog and hope that I can help change the difficult perception of only wearing them for a certain time or fitting a certain body shape…so I cannot agree more. Most of the time it can be a matter of choosing the right fitting or cut. Would love to see you wearing a Qipao again….have a lovely weekend!
    May
    http://www.walkinginmay.com
    ~Walk through a day in May…Love~Qipao~Vintage




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    • May, what a pleasure to visit your blog! I wish I’d seen it earlier. You know so much about the qipao, not only its history but how to choose and wear one now. Your personal collection of qipao is amazing. I particularly like your batik qipao. It’s not only beautiful, but it also looks comfortable. In the 1970s my husband brought many pieces of batik back from his business trips in Indonesia and I had them made into dresses for myself and my daughters. I also learned to do batik. I made some wall hangings which I still have hanging in my house.




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      • May

        Aww…thank you Nicki! I am glad you enjoyed visiting my blog. I just wish more women will be encouraged to wear the Qipao without fear and hopefully it won’t become a dying art anymore. Batik is indeed beautiful as well as functional…I do have another batik Cheongsam in my sewing pile as well as a few other vintage silk ones I have found…but altering them by hand myself does take a bit of time. Nevertheless a slow process that is definitely worth it! I would love to see your batik collection too, as I think it is not an art that many know much about outside of Asia. Have a lovely week Nicki!
        May




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  13. I do, indeed, have a cheongsam, of the modest ankle-length variety. I have always loved the style. I find it very alluring. 🙂




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    • Alluring. A good word to describe the cheongsam. I’m glad to hear that you have one. These days, I don’t have as many occasions for dressing up as I used to, but I still admire beautiful dresses.




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  14. Pingback: One Hundred Posts and Counting | BEHIND THE STORY

  15. My mother gave me one of hers…it’s pink. Actually it’s a big for me. She would have worn it in her early 20’s.

    2 of my 3 married sisters did wear their specially made quinpao for their wedding reception…after their white wedding dress for ceremony here in Canada. Actually 1 sister her wedding dress was a white quipao, long one. Then she changed into a red one for dinner.




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    • Thanks for adding this, Jean. Your family has lots of experience with the qipao. My sister-in-law also had two ceremonies for her wedding, one in Japan in a white gown and another in Hong Kong in a red qipao.




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