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The Little Silk Dress That Made China Sexy

In China, nothing says sexy like Maggie Cheung in a tight-fitting mandarin gown. But few people know the real story behind this dress, and how it became so popular in 1920s Shanghai, before disappearing after the revolution -- and finding new life today.

The qipao, worn like this, embodies classic Chinese sex appeal (Shizhao)
The qipao, worn like this, embodies classic Chinese sex appeal (Shizhao)
Yang Tingting

SHANGHAI - In the trailer of Zhang Yimou's upcoming epic film "The Flowers of War" one of the most memorable scenes involves 13 swaying women wearing qipao dresses. Pronounced "chee pow" and also called cheongsam, the dress is both extremely feminine and subtly sexy. It is the embodiment, in some people's eyes, of a kind of classic Chinese sex appeal.

Before Zhang Yimou's film, the form-fitting dress was worn by the elegant and sublime Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar Wai's "In the Mood for Love", and in Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution." It has also made an occasional appearance wrapped on a Western celebrity, including Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Lopez.

But what Western spectators do not know is that today, except for a few ceremonies, its use in China is mostly limited to restaurant waitresses and airline attendants. Ordinary Chinese women simply do not wear this kind of dress anymore.

In the past couple of years, many people have become nostalgic for the time before the Chinese Communist Party's takeover, thanks, perhaps, to a few popular television series set during the pre-war era, when upper-class ladies and socialites wore such gowns.

Although the stylish and often tight-fitting dress was created in the 1920s in Shanghai, the traditional "qipao", meaning the garment of the Banners People, chiefly the Manchu, was a garment worn by the mandarins: men and women of the Imperial court. It came in the form of loose vest all the way down to the feet, worn on top of a long-sleeved blouse. It was later transformed into the gown with sleeves that became the prototype of the modern qipao.

Women's lib and prostitutes

In the old Shanghai where the vanguard of the women's liberation movement took the lead in China, the missionaries and merchants opened schools for girls. It's said that it was these female students who initiated the fashion. They wore plain, simple but elegant qipao. They represented the new intellectual aesthetic. The dress quickly became popular with the celebrities of the time.

But it is also said that another category of women gave the cheongsam new life in Shanghai: older prostitutes. This is an interesting theory. In the first half of the last century prostitutes led Shanghai's fashion taste. The prostitute was the fashion model of her time.

In pre-war Shanghai the competition among prostitutes was intense. Russian and Japanese girls flooded in looking for riches. The Chinese girls were forced to use their traditional dressmakers' talent to fashion a dress that did wonders for the figure, making each girl tall and elegant, while the tight fit worked wonders on men's imaginations.

No matter which version of the story is true, they confirm the most important quality of this garment – it has a different effect on each woman, either graceful or flirtatious, all depending on who's wearing it. Although it was first created in the 1920s, it was in the 1930s that the qipao benefitted from some Western tailoring influence. More structural than the Chinese original, it boasts a lower waistline and darts at the bust and the waist for a tighter fit, while the shoulder seam and fitted sleeves completed its devastating effect. Softer shoulder pads rendered the look even more feminine than the original with its more angular shape.

From that time to the present, with the exception of the cheongsam, China has failed to produce any stylistic influence on the clothing world. After the revolution, female fashion disappeared altogether in China. Women basically wore military fatigues. Only in the past 20 years has this started to change.

Recently, in Beijing, there was an exhibition called a "Hundred Years Celebration of the Qipao. The exhibition shows the birth of the Republic of China cheongsam, how slits and Western-style tailoring modified it, and then in the 1940s, the final variations of the gown prior to its almost total extinction.

The celebrity effect

In pre-war Shanghai famous artists tried their hand at designing qipao. A female painter, Tang Ying, not only owned countless of them herself, but also ran a fashion company that exclusively sold these dresses. As the "Paris of the Orient", Shanghai had already been prominently featured in in women's fashion magazines. And because the cinema production center was also in this city, Shanghai rivaled Hollywood for sheer glamour.

The most famous woman associated with qipao was Soong Mai Ling - the former First Lady of the Republic of China and wife of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Soong came from a wealthy family and spent her teenage years in America before she went back to China. When she returned to the States during the war along with Chiang to promote the Chinese cause, she charmed many American politicians, including President Roosevelt, with her well versed English and Western culture -- and her graceful but restrained array of Chinese qipao.

She lived to be 106. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London asked her to donate one of her qipao gowns as their exhibition piece just before she died.

After China turned Communist, the wives of the party leaders continued to wear the qipao for a while. Wang Guangmei, wife of disgraced ex- People's Republic Chairman Liu Shaoqi, wore a qipao on a state visit, one of the crimes for which she was brutally "criticized" during the Cultural Revolution.

The qipao continued to be popular in Hong Kong and in Taiwan where many Chinese Nationalists and their families had fled after Mao took over power. But on the mainland, the dress had totally vanished until its reappearance over the past 20 years, worn by female Chinese leaders at solemn occasions, or stars on the red carpet.

And yes, you will also see them worn in China by receptionists, waitresses and masseuses. The glaring red versions with a high slit to reveal the leg have also made the qipao, alas, a sign of cheapness and vulgarity.

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - Shizhao

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