What’s Behind The Global Appeal Of China’s Qipao Dress?

The craze of wearing qipao has become universally popular today with both Hollywood and Asian celebrities. Many wear them in different yet alluring styles at prestigious events, and it is made of top-notch fabrics (mainly silk) and adorned with marvelous embroidery designs on top.

This beautiful dress is traditionally a Chinese woman’s iconic outfit — one that she wears only on a grand occasion. It is also known for its great body-hugging silhouettes, sexy attitude, and irresistible appeal, making qipao the sexiest dress in Chinese culture.

If a woman in China is spotted wearing a qipao dress, it is believed that they like to portray themselves as romantic. For instance, the 2000 blockbuster movie “In the Mood for Love” is the most preferred choice for Chinese lovers to watch and understand why this cliché still holds.

The colorful qipaos in Wong Kar-wai’s film “In the Mood for Love” convey the shifting moods and themes, such as love and jealousy. Photo IMDB

The fascinating history of qipao

The phenomenal trend of qipao, also known as Cheongsam, began in Shanghai in the 1930s. Back then, Chinese women gave importance to this exotic dress like a golden piece that brought out their unseen beauty in the open. Since then, its grandeur hasn’t abated but rather grown at its own pace, which has only helped in accelerating its demand among affluent Chinese women. It’s no wonder then that for the Chinese brides-to-be, this dress has become one of the first definitive choices for them to wear on their life’s most special day — a wedding day.

But the unique redevelopment of the qipao has only been possible thanks to famous Chinese designers like Uma Wang and Guo Pei, not to mention big fashion houses designing qipao. And who can forget internationally famous Middle Eastern designer Zuhair Murad and his dazzling qipao-like dresses! In fact, the American pop star Taylor Swift was once spotted wearing a qipao-inspired gown designed by Murad at the Grammys in 2012.

Taylor Swift wears a qipao-inspired dress designed by Murad to the 54th Annual Grammy Awards. Photo: Shutterstock

“The qipao is the one and only dress that reveals a Chinese woman’s beauty in a wholly divine form,” said Bao Mingxin, an ex-professor from the Fashion & Art Design Institute of Donghua University. Another important point Mingxin made is that all Chinese women were originally expected to have traits like being reserved and feminine in a qipao. But, truth be told, the dress simply looks best on women with slender figures. As Mingxin pointed out, “there is no question that women with slender curves will do justice to the dress.”

China’s world-renowned Haute couturier Guo Pei agrees. “In China, traditional garments are held in high regard,” she said. “As part of this tradition, which is still followed strictly, qipao will only fit a certain body type, albeit it has become more stylish.”

Yet, if we dig deeper, we will come to know that the qipao gained popularity a decade earlier in the 1920s. According to experts, the origin of the dress is closely related to the Manchu robe, made famous during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). But the qipao was given a new lease of life in Shanghai in the 1930s, influenced by Western sewing skills, which is how the dress became more attractive.

That was a big fashion moment for women in China. And soon after, this period came to be known as one where modern and traditional dressmaking elements merged to give a whole new look to the dress.

Then, with a rapid surge in popularity, one of Shanghai’s premier fashion retailers, Hongxiang, did a commendable job of getting movie stars into qipao fashion shows. Emboldened by a strong response from film stars, Hongxiang went ahead and designed six qipao dresses to exhibit at the Chicago World Expo in 1933.

Hollywood and Asian celebrities love for qipao

Many Hollywood celebrities have been fascinated with qipao, including five-time Golden Globe Award winner Nicole Kidman, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, and Anne Hathaway. Additionally, some Western celebrities have taken an interest in cheongsam dresses. Some of them include Katy Perry, Elisabeth Rohm, Denise Van Outen, Emma Watson, Kate Moss, and Paris Hilton. Of course, renowned Asian celebrities also favor the dress, including names like Fan Bingbing, Chen Hao, Liu Yifei, Shu Qi, and many more.

The legacy of qipao will continue

With the increasing acceptance of qipao worldwide, mostly thanks to the Chinese diaspora living abroad, the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou decided to organize an annual Global Qipao Invitational Exhibition, now in its third year.

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The latest exhibition is one of a kind, with 40 qipaos designed separately by both indigenous and foreign designers and put on display. Although there are several highlights in the show, the most attention-grabbing qipaos are those with flying sleeves designed by Chinese-born designer Uma Wang and a red qipao created with silk by Spanish artist Kima Guitart. The exhibition ends on October 30, 2021.

“My mission is to make this yearly exhibition a get-together of people from different countries so that they can engage in cultural dialogues,” said Zhao Feng, director of the China National Silk Museum. “At the end of the day, it’s all about understanding one another in a culturally sound atmosphere.”

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