One Woman’s Quest for a Qipao

Photograph by N509FZ, distributed under a CC-BY-SA-4.0 license.

The classic garment is elegant and evocative of traditional Chinese culture. But do you need the figure of a professional model to carry off wearing one?

As a Chinese-American, I have always loved wearing a qipao for special occasions. But after having four kids and living the diplomatic high life in Taiwan for three years, I could only squeeze into the traditional Chinese dresses I owned if I refrained from eating – or even breathing.

It was obviously time to invest in a new qipao. The challenge was to find one that would make me look poised, not three months’ pregnant. Given my mom bod and the nature of the outfit – with its form-fitting cut, high Mandarin collar, and slits up the sides – it seemed like an impossible task.

My friend Jerri So, who wears a qipao daily after developing an addiction to the Chinese garb, insisted it was doable. “You just have to find the right one,” she said.

Buoyed by her faith, I set out in search of the perfect qipao, a quest that had me visiting fashion shoots and shops, scholars and a university collection, and ultimately a master tailor who has clothed the crème of Taiwan society.

He wasn’t convinced I needed a new qipao at all. “When do you plan to wear it?” he said.

Though I’d attended plenty of galas as a diplomatic spouse in Taiwan, including a number decked out in a qipao, we were about to leave the island to return to the United States. “Uh, when my kids get married?” I said.

When the tailor learned my oldest was in college, he told me to come back in a decade. Meanwhile, I could stick with the half-dozen qipao I already owned.

To be sure, there’s an art to wearing qipaos, which are also known as cheongsams, and more art to posing for photos in them. At Panapina, a boutique tucked in an alley behind Taipei’s most-famous soup dumpling restaurant, I tried on two off-the-racks: one in businesslike checkers on baby blue and another in a demure cream-colored silk.

As I desperately sucked in my stomach, shop owner Daisy Liang showed me how to sit properly. “Hitch up the fabric a little and perch on the edge of the chair, or your butt will spread out. And don’t cross your legs.”

Jerri liked the baby blue one, but I could barely move and I was having trouble inhaling. “The other one does show your stomach,” she admitted.

My qipao fashion shoot didn’t go much better. Annie Chen, chairman of the Taiwan-based Chinese Cheongsam Association, often sets up catwalk classes, lectures, and other activities to teach the group’s 100-plus members – mostly middle-aged women – how to properly inhabit their qipao.

The author, second from the right, with fellow members of Taipei’s Chinese Cheongsam Association at a 2018 event.

The June 2018 event, held at a restaurant in a historic, Japanese-style building, included a chance to pose for a professional photographer before dinner. I donned a below-the-knee number that I had bought years before – and which unfortunately splashed a big red flower right across my middle.

Annie, who wore a full-length gown colored with geometric patterns from her collection of 150 qipaos, pulled me in front of the photo umbrellas in the hall. “Put one foot forward. Suck in your stomach. Pull your shoulders back,” she said.

I tried to obey her commands, but the photographer frowned. “Try to look more natural,” he said.

Afterward, Annie and I sipped pink wine fizzies as members of the association trickled in. Most of them showed up in street clothes and changed into their qipaos in the bathroom. “We encourage people to wear qipaos outside, but sometimes it’s not practical if they’re coming from work or taking the subway,” she sighed.

After taking over as president in 2017, Annie set up the Chinese Cheongsam World Federation to build ties with qipao organizations in other countries, including China, South Korea, and even Mongolia and the Czech Republic. She says she recently helped facilitate the establishment of a qipao association in Hawaii.

“Any group with 15 people can set up a branch under us, and we’ll provide US$10,000 to help cover costs,” she said.

Historical evolution

Introduced to China by the Manchus in the 17th century, the qipao originated as a baggy, unisex robe that symbolized women’s liberation. Evolutions in style transformed it into its current figure-hugging form, which hit its heyday in 1920s Shanghai. The garment saw a decline in popularity in the following decades due to shifting politics and fashion trends emphasizing casualness and comfort.

In recent years, the traditional Chinese dress has seen a resurrection of sorts. In China, many restaurants have made qipaos the uniform for waitresses, while online marketplace Taobao has a chat group devoted to qipao aficionados.  In April last year, the qipao garnered international attention when an American high schooler wore a red-and-gold floor-lengther to her prom, sparking an online firestorm over the issue of cultural appropriation.

In Taiwan these days, qipaos mostly constitute special-occasion attire, making appearances at weddings and graduations, though the garment has a select and enthusiastic following. At the Chinese Cheongsam Association dinner, Jane Wei, a 60-ish grandmother and electronics company boss, danced in a forest-green dress with red frog buttons that matched the flowers in her hair.

“People here don’t know I’m a boss,” she said. “I can show off a different side of myself.”

Julie Chien, wife of former Taiwan foreign minister Fredrick Chien, wears qipaos to official luncheons and dinners, as well as private events such as birthday parties. “For me, the qipao is an elegant, simple, and easy-to-wear national costume,” she says.

After the Nationalists lost the Chinese Civil War against the Communists, the retreating government officials and their families brought the qipao culture with them to Taiwan. Many Taiwanese women who married mainlanders adopted the Chinese dress for daily wear, but the qipao’s most glamorous champion was Soong Mei-ling, wife of the late President Chiang Kai-shek. She appeared everywhere in a qipao, wowing in an elegant black model during her address to the U.S. Congress in 1943.

The rise of a unique Taiwanese identity in recent years has caused some Taiwanese to reject the qipao as a national costume, however, just as they scorn Beijing’s continued claim to the island – and even as China proudly promotes the qipao after decades of labeling it bourgeois. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, for one, tends to favor pantsuits, usually in black or navy.

For me, the politics of the qipao didn’t matter. I just wanted one that would fit. A visit to Fu Jen Catholic University’s Chinese Clothing and Culture Center underscored how exacting an art it is to produce a well-made dress.

Slipping on a pair of white gloves, collection caretaker Kao Fu-lin led Jerri and me into the center’s climate-controlled storeroom. The vast majority of the thousand-plus qipaos were donations from Taiwan, but a few were purchased from China and two had belonged to Madame Soong.

Contrary to my assumption that traditional qipaos were all cut from Chinese silk, the dresses in the university collection were also made from wool, satin, and lace, with long sleeves and short, and fancied up with embroidery, fur, and a vast array of hand-sewn knot buttons (known as pankou) and colored borders.

Kao pointed to the piping running along the front of Jerri’s Shanghai-made qipao. “You shouldn’t be able to see the stitching,” she tutted. Rather, she said, the tailor should have left extra fabric the length of the borders that would at the end be ironed over the stitches to cover them.

“So how does the tailor hide your stomach?” I asked, staring at the single, flat panel of fabric that made up the front.

“Find Master Hsu,” Kao said. “It’s his special skill.”

The Way of the Master

It turned out that Master Hsu was the same tailor who had rebuffed me over the phone earlier, and it took a lot of begging before he would even see us. After he finally agreed – “I’ll answer your questions, but I don’t need to make you a qipao” – Jerri and I found him measuring a swath of pink fabric in an atelier in Taipei’s old shopping district of Ximending. The cramped sixth-floor room was filled with photos, dresses, and antique sewing machines.

Hsu Rong-I, a gnomish 75-year-old sporting a frizzy halo of gray hair and a Mandarin-collar shirt, has been sewing qipaos for nearly 60 years. He remembers when sales were so good that he and the other tailors in their shop had to finish two dresses a day to keep up with orders, which sometimes meant staying up all night.

Business slowed for most qipao tailors after Taiwan’s economy took off in the 1980s and more people adopted Western-style clothes. But Master Hsu’s garments have remained in high demand, despite his discouragement to would-be customers (“I’m too tired,” he says) and steep prices (upwards of US$300, fabric not included).

Jerri immediately recognized the fine craftsmanship of the completed qipaos that were hanging from the ceiling rack. “I love this,” she cooed over a violet qipao with a fancy border design.

The tailor unfurled the green silk I’d brought with me. “Are you sure you want one made? Are you wearing the right undergarments?”

He’d told me over the phone to wear a new bra because I’d always have to wear the same one with his qipao to get the best fit. I nodded. But after taking a few measurements, he said the dress I had on was too binding at the waist to take proper measurements, and anyway, he had a doctor’s appointment. “You don’t need a new qipao,” he repeated, shooing us out.

I returned the next day, but Master Hsu still wasn’t satisfied. “What kind of undergarment are you wearing?” he demanded again, after repeatedly measuring and re-measuring my front.

He snorted when I told him it was a strapless Victoria’s Secret. “Didn’t I tell you not to wear that kind? You need straps to look perky.” He sent me home again.

On my third trip, he finally got the two dozen measurements he needed, in between turning away a couple of phone requests from would-be customers. He suggested a relatively high collar, which he said would make my neck look longer. 

Master Hsu ensures a proper fit.

It was nearly six p.m., and Master Hsu’s partner, who hails from the same part of China as he does and had trained under the same mainland Chinese tailor, tidied up and left.

Master Hsu settled in to work. He had ironed and ironed a half-finished qipao, using the heat and steam to stretch and shrink the panel of red lace to create the subtle curves that made his dresses fit so well. To his exacting eye, the fabric wasn’t hanging right. He would have to take it apart and redo it.

“I’d like to retire, but who can do that?” he said. He had tried taking on apprentices so he could pass down his craft, he said, but sooner or later they quit – either because the work was too hard or they couldn’t take his constructive criticism.  When the tailor himself was an apprentice, he had slept on the workbench and run errands and cooked before he was even allowed to start learning the trade.

“Now you say something, and they complain you’re yelling at them,” he said. “How are they supposed to learn?”

Ten days later, as promised, my dress was ready. Master Hsu had modernized the traditional green print with a double border of white and Kelly green, and a pair of frog buttons to match. “You wore the same bra, right?” he asked.

I slipped on the qipao and stepped out in front of the mirror.

“That looks amazing,” Jerri said.

Wearing the qipao at a diplomatic event in Taipei.

Master Hsu unceremoniously yanked up the fabric of my dress. “Good! You can go to the bathroom,” he announced. He made me walk, turn around, sit down, and declared the qipao was done. And it fit perfectly, the heavy green silk flowing with the shape of my body, without showing any stomach while allowing me to breathe.

“What if I lose weight?” I said. Back home I wouldn’t be drinking endless glasses of red wine and nibbling on bread smeared with butter at official dinners.

“Don’t worry. Qipaos look better a little loose,” Master Hsu said. And he turned back to the next dress he was working on.

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