The Unforgettable Art of Qipao 05-16-2005 15:24

In 1911, The Qing Dynasty, which was established by the Manchu people (a Northern Chinese tribe which was unified in the early 17th century) was overthrown in China, but their dress, the Qipao, or the Banner Dress, was kept.

In the early 1920鈥檚, the Qipao became popular among both Manchu and Han women. Influenced by western designs in the late 20th century, the Qipao became shorter in length and its waistline was redesigned to be more figure- hugging. The dress perfectly captures the elegance and serenity of Oriental beauty.

It was a revolution in the Chinese society when women began to show their arms and legs when they wore Qipaos. In the past, they were even forbidden to expose their feet. Old-fashioned people were furious about it and some warlords declared that Qipaos and naked models were two evil things that perverted the society.

However, it didn鈥檛 stop women from pursuing fashion. Movie stars and upper-class ladies helped it reach extreme popularity. It became the Chinese women鈥檚 daily dress for decades. Women of all ages used to wear it for all occasions.

Since the 1950鈥檚, the Qipao has gradually exited Chinese women鈥檚 life. It was regarded as representing an outdated ideology. This lasted nearly half a century before this Chinese art almost vanished into history.

In the past decades, Chinese women鈥檚 fashion has become so much westernized that western-style clothing has become main-stream for their work and daily life, and Qipaos are rarely seen on the streets.

However, in recent years I have sensed that women, especially younger ones are more and more attracted to Qipaos. There seems to be a come-back of this traditional Chinese dress. The Qipao market is thriving in China with the nostalgic trend (in China.)

Though ready-to-wear Qipaos can be found everywhere, women still tend to have hand-made Qipaos as they believe that these dresses stand not only for tradition, but also for fashion.

Making a Qipao is a comprehensive art. The process of making a Qipao starts when the designer sees a customer. He needs to take measures, choose material and decide the design according to the customer鈥檚 own style.

Choosing material is the first step. Most Qipaos are made of silk. Silk shops, with the revival of the Qipao art, after decades of declining, are welcoming their hey-days now.

I鈥檝e been astonished by how many kinds of silk materials people can find in the market. Some Qipao lovers even order special material for themselves to make unique Qipaos.

When you find your favorite material, you can easily find a Qipao tailor who will provide an all hand-made service. The cost ranges from 50 to 5000 US dollars, depending on your special requirement for design, beads and broidery.

The customers have given me answers as to why they are so fascinated by hand-made Qipaos 鈥 the culture. With increasing awareness of national culture, Chinese people begin to worry about the dying out of the Qipao tradition. Intrigued with these beautiful and elaborate dresses as every woman would be, I鈥檓 tracing the Qipao art in China.

Beijing, as always a political and cultural center of Northern China, was also a center for Qipao-making in the old days. Many famous tailors worked here more than half a century ago, but most of them left the industry as time passed. Fortunately, I found Mr. Cao Senlin, who is still making Qipaos using methods he learned 60 years ago.

Mr. Cao鈥檚 tailor shop is small but quite famous. It was listed in The Beijing Travel Guide for International Visitors, and Mr. Cao鈥檚 name appeared in both the Chinese and World press.

Yang Chenggui is a master of Qipao art from Taiwan. He, as many older-generation Qipao tailors, learned his skills from his father. He went to the Academy of fashion and Design in Japan, which led him later on to be the first Chinese in the school鈥檚 history to teach the art of making Qipaos.

Mr. Yang felt it was his responsibility to stop the decline of this unique art in Mainland China.

He recruited students from all over the country. Unlike old-style masters who try to conceal top skills from apprentices, he wrote two detailed textbooks on how to make a Qipao. Now he plans to design software to store and analyze various body data to make Qipaos better fit his customers. He also told me that he wishes that the government would encourage women to wear a Qipao on a certain day to celebrate this traditional art.

If you ask a Chinese where the origin of the Qipao comes from, they will certainly say Shanghai, the fashion capital of China. The word Shanghai always reminds people of actresses in black and white movies and models in cigarette commercial posters. These ladies almost exclusively wear Qipao dresses, which make them look delicate and elegant. I heard that people used to say in old times that everyone tried to dress as Shanghai people did, but no one got it right.

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