Classical Ladies' Fashion Design and The Society Changing (1): Chinese Qi Pao
Chinese Qi Pao
Qi Pao, or Chinese dress, cheongsam, is a traditional Chinese ladies' dress. It derived from royal dress' design, and was popular in 20s and 30s of last century. The design of Qi Pao lays first emphasis on displaying the beautiful curve of Chinese women, and a series of structural elements, including the collar, the button, the color, and the cloth, embody the cultural background, so the whole design shows a poetic and artistic conception, which is in agreement with the main qualities of traditional Chinese women: virtuousness, elegance, tenderness and delicacy. Plus, the changing of Qi Pao design over time reflected the changes of culture and society.
The background and development
Qi Pao was originated from the dress of Qi ladies in Qing Dynasty, which was the last dynasty in 2000 years Feudal Imperialism and was ruled by a minor group, Manchu people. In 1601, Nurhachi, the father of the first Emperor of Qing Dynasty, created the Eight-Banner System to manage his grand army, i.e. divided soldiers into eight groups, each group under the symbol of one of eight colors banners: yellow, white, red, blue; a yellow, a white and a blue each with a red frame, and a red with a white frame. Noble people from the eight groups were called Qi people (because the pronunciation of "banner" or "flag" in Chinese is qi), and the clothes of Qi people was called Qi clothes, but Qi Pao only refers to ladies' dress.
Qi Pao is considerably different from Qi ladies' dress. Qi ladies' dress was long to the ankle, loose and level, and all with long sleeves. This design actually hid the body shape, while Qi Pao design is really an integration of Chinese and western dress styles. In 1920s, traditional Chinese culture was greatly influenced by the western short after the last Feudal Monarchy was overthrown. The current government disciplined the design of Qi Pao: simple, practical, beautiful and national. The new design assimilated the currently popular style of ladies' dress in Paris: slender design, lowered waistline, and shortened size in length. The new design of Qi Pao was to fit the body than royal style, while the shorter size in length was to show ladies' charm in legs. 1930s saw the prime time of Qi Pao development. The whole design was tighter to show the body curve of ladies, and styles were more various: long to the ankle or short to the knee, sleeves or non-sleeves, high or short collar. The major change of the new design was the longer slits on both bottom sides, which were to show the mysterious sexy of oriental ladies with practical to walk. The Qi Pao design of 30s became the standard style to represent Chinese traditional ladies' dress.
Qi Pao of Shanghai School
With the changing of Qi Pao design over time, there arose two schools: Shanghai (the largest city in south) School and Beijing (the Capital city in north) School, but Shanghai school was actually the mainstream. The major design of 30s talked above refers to Shanghai School: long slits, turn-down collar, "V" shape collar, frill collar, frill sleeves, chest and waist dart, etc. reflected the western fashion style. The Shanghai city of 1920s, 30s was a place, where Chinese culture greatly integrated with the western civilization. The all major western nations had their respect concession in Shanghai, and the current city had the fame of "Oriental Paris" with its prospect, while classical Shanghai ladies in Qi Pao became a beautiful view-line. They had many stories in that dazzled metropolis with feasting and revelry everywhere: ideal and reality, strength and weakness, loyalty and betray, while Qi Pao became the indispensable part of their lives. Noble women from famous family, ladies movie stars, career women presented their respectable unique feeling for the classical dress with their respectful unique ways.
Aesthetic Philosophy in Design
Qi Pao is known for its elegant and noble design, but its beauty is also closely related to people who wear it, both external curve and internal quality. Whether skinny or plump, young or old, only ladies with richness inside can have their own attractiveness in harmony with the dress' grace, which may be one of the reasons that Qi Pao is not as popular today as then any more, but becomes a graceful exhibition in movies or TV shows.
The small elements of Qi Pao
Besides collar, sleeves, breast and waist darts, and slits, the buttons and the cloth selection are other two elements. The buttons are always convolute with manual work: Pi Pa (an musical instrument), gourd, butterfly, or crystal shape, etc., delicate and classical, while the fabric materials is also various: silk, satin, cotton, flax, or yarn, but the most attractive thing is the fabric design and hand-made embroidery on the dress.
Anecdotes about Qi Pao
During the World War Second, Edgar Snow, a famous American writer, went to meet Chairman Mao and wrote world-famous book, Red Star over China. His wife, Hellen, first came to Shanghai when only twenty-three, while one of her friends, Polly, initiated fund-raising activities for "Chinese Workers' Union" in the United States. Therefore, Song Qingling, the First Lady of the first President, sent one beautiful Qi Pao to Polly, and Polly was wearing it whenever she delivered fund-raising speech. Later, the Snows went to Philippine to develop fund-raising activities, then Polly sent the Qi Pao to them. On March 17th, 1998, i.e. 58 years later, that amazing Qi Pao returned back to China and was kept in the old house of Song Qingling, the first First Lady.
Song Meiling, the First Lady of the second President and also the sister of Song Qingling, kept Guinness World Records for Qi Pao collection. Her tailor, Zhang Ruixiang, spent almost everyday on making Qi Pao for her, and made one ready every two or three days. However, the First Lady only examined it a little bit, then locked it into a wardrobe, and had never worn it. So, although she loved Qi Pao so much and wore Qi Pao all the time, she only wore a few articles.
Qi Pao derived from the Clothes of Qi people, was born in 1920s, and popular in 1930s. Shanghai city is generally regarded as the initiated place of the traditional clothing. In the recent history, the western culture invaded and greatly influenced all aspects of Shanghai life. Qi Pao design was thus changed from loose style for hiding body shape to the new style for fully showing beauty curve. Therefore, Qi Pao has also become popular in western fashion circle.
Modern girls in Qi Pao
Nowadays, Qi Pao is not popular in everyday life any more, but fits to special occasions, such as festivals, ceremonies, and wedding days. It is still greatly admired by fashion people. Some people regarded it as an old-fashioned fine work to collect, and women still love to buy and keep it. Therefore, there are many brands of Qi Pao on market, and many experts and manufacturers who devote to develop this special traditional attractiveness.
However, as time changes, designers have added new concepts into this old clothing. For instance, there has developed fish tails, shoulderless or even backless costumes...to catch up with the present trend, and a brand-new cultural taste, but basically retain all structural elements, such as buttons and embroidery patterns.