Tuesday 28 July 2020

In Praise of the Qi Pao/Cheongsam

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | Shanghai
I fault Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar-Wai's magnificent "In The Mood For Love" movie for my qi pao/cheongsam fascination, which birthed my interest in producing 'photo films' featuring friends and/or semi-professional models wearing these quintessential Chinese dresses. While I'm also interested in Chinese opera costumes and to a certain extent, 'hanfu' (meaning clothes of the Han people) dress, it's the qi pao/cheongsam that is top of the list.

However, it's really my interest in Shanghai of the 1920-1930s historical era that introduced me to the dress.

The qi pao (旗袍) is pronounced as chi pao in Mandarin Chinese, but due to Hong Kong's influence, most of us call it cheongsam. The dress was popularized during the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). The word "qi pao" means "banner dress", a sort of baggy robe similar to the French robe-sac fashion of the 1960s. 

It was a long one-piece loose fitting meant to cover the whole body from neck to feet, and was only worn by the Manchu class. It was meant to be 
very conservative and unrevealing, and was only after 1900 that the Han Chinese adopted the style, but in so doing made some modifications to the original design.

When Shanghai -competing with Paris- became the epicenter of high fashion and the Chinese capital of haute couture in the 1920s, the qi pao shed its conservative ancestry, and became de rigueur for the fashionistas of the time.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | Shanghai
I read there are actually two main traditional qi pao styles. Northern China favors the Beijing style which is called "Jing pai", and is more angular with a more conservative full-length loose form. The south prefers the Shanghai style called "hai pai", which is more form hugging and can be of various lengths. 

The modern qi pao has a zipper stitched into the side and a fake fastening on the front. Traditionally, the front was fastened by pankou (button) knots, but these are now only used for decoration. I've seen some that still have the original pankou knots though.

In the view of couturiers, the qi pao is a garment that embodies traditional Chinese etiquette and culture. With collars that stick upwards rather than folding, the qi pao causes the wearers to raise their heads and push out their chests. It also discourages glancing right and left. This explains Maggie Cheung's famous scene in which she walked up the staircase without looking at Tony Leung!

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