Intercultural Vintage: Questions on Qipao

Flashback Summer: Intercultural Vintage - Questions on Qipao Cheongsam
1930s Shanghai ad

Boy, am I excited about today's post!  We're going to talk about an aspect of intercultural vintage that originates in one of the world's oldest and most trend-setting cultures: China.



The relationship between Western cultures and China goes back centuries, ranging from the Silk Road to modern day economic ties.  Textiles and porcelain from China found their way to Europe hundreds of years ago, and "oriental" aesthetics have inspired Westerners ever since.  

Flashback Summer: Intercultural Vintage - Questions on Qipao Cheongsam
Model wearing dinner-sheath of water-marked silk with Chinese lines, 1941

However, the relationship between Western cultures and China is also a complicated one, and fashion is included in this tumultuous area of intercultural interaction.  Today we're specifically going to look at a traditional women's garment from China called the qipao in Mandarin (or cheongsam in Cantonese).


Flashback Summer: Intercultural Vintage - Questions on Qipao Cheongsam
Wu YingYin, a Chinese singer in the 30s-40s

The odds are good that even if you don't recognize these terms, you will definitely recognize the style of dress.  The high collar and asymmetrical frog closures are undisputedly and iconically "Chinese" in the minds of many Westerners, and for good reason!  While I won't go into depth about the history of the garment, I will say that the qipao has been around for over 300 years.  (May Loh of "Walking in May" has a fantastic post overviewing the history of the qipao.)  The fabrics, embellishment, and style are combined to reflect the status of the wearer as well as to flatter each woman's particular form as much as possible.

This garment began its life as a looser fitting, a-lined shape dress worn by women in the Qing dynasty that began in 1644.  Over time, it gradually morphed in shape and fit to reflect political and societal changes.  By the 1920s, the qipao began to resemble the modern qipao in its tighter fit and fewer layers.


Flashback Summer: Intercultural Vintage - Questions on Qipao Cheongsam
Chinese woman in the 1920s

The 1920s was also about the time when the qipao really became noticed in the West.  Although there were definite "orientalist" trends before then, movie stars in the U.S. like Anna May Wong popularized the style through their films.  Since the 1920s, the qipao has popped up time and again in fashion throughout the West, most recently in the 1990s.


Flashback Summer: Intercultural Vintage - Questions on Qipao Cheongsam
Anna May Wong in the 1920s

Meanwhile, in China and surrounding areas, the qipao adopted some traits of Western fashion as cultures began to meet.  New fabrics, zippers, shoulder pads, and other Western items began to make their way into the traditional qipao garment.  Hem lengths and designs changed to reflect modernization and China's changing societal ideals, particularly gender equality.


Flashback Summer: Intercultural Vintage - Questions on Qipao Cheongsam
1960s cheongsam in Hong Kong


Flashback Summer: Intercultural Vintage - Questions on Qipao Cheongsam
Stylish ladies in 1950s Kuala Lumpur

Over time, however, due to political upheaval with Communism, the Cultural Revolution, and other reasons over several decades, the qipao waned in popularity as daily wear.  By the 1970s and until now it has largely become a style of uniform and a formal dress for festivals, holidays, and special occasions.


Flashback Summer: Intercultural Vintage - Questions on Qipao Cheongsam
1962 BOAC air stewardesses

So now that you know a bit about the qipao and its history, here's the question I'd like to discuss: Who can wear qipao/cheongsam?  Is it cultural appropriation for a non-Chinese person to wear it?

What definitely can't be disputed is that non-Chinese have worn the qipao, and for the sake of my largely Western audience we'll focus on qipao in the West.  Here are just a few examples of vintage qipao on our side of the world:

(I found vintage pictures of white actresses in qipao, but this conversation is about any non-Chinese person wearing cheongsam.)


Flashback Summer: Intercultural Vintage - Questions on Qipao Cheongsam
Elizabeth Taylor


Flashback Summer: Intercultural Vintage - Questions on Qipao Cheongsam
Grace Kelly


Flashback Summer: Intercultural Vintage - Questions on Qipao Cheongsam
Susan Hayward

There are many beautiful vintage cheongsam in the world, but who can wear them without committing the societal sin of cultural appropriation?

I wanted to get a few more perspectives on this subject, so I asked Nora (Nora Finds) and May Loh (Walking in May) about it.  Here are some of their responses:


Flashback Summer: Intercultural Vintage - Questions on Qipao Cheongsam - May Loh Walking in May
May Loh in a vintage 70s does 30s qipao


Emileigh: May Loh, in your personal opinion, would a non-Chinese person wearing a qipao be a respectful way of saying, "I appreciate your culture," or would it be best not to wear one?

May Loh: I am probably the wrong person to ask as I am biased in my endeavors to spread love for the Qipao and I have worn other traditional clothing from different cultures that are not my own. But as far as the people that I have come across...if the traditional garment is worn with great respect and love then it will be most appreciated as well as welcomed. I would encourage any lady to wear the Qipao as long as they wear it with appreciation of the history and love for the art that it is. It is when the Qipao is worn as a fancy dress party costume with all sorts of funny items making it a clowning effort and undermining the beautiful authencity of the garment [that it becomes disrespectful]. How one dresses also comes down to one's intention... If the intention is one of love then she will try, as you have, to learn all she can and wear it with respect... That is why my blog exists and why I am celebrating other Qipao lovers, too.

Flashback Summer: Intercultural Vintage - Questions on Qipao Cheongsam - Nora Finds

Now some input from Nora:

Emileigh: Nora, you've mentioned in some of your posts that you are part Chinese, but you just got your first qipao recently. What made you wait so long?

Nora: Okay so I guess I'm a rare case. As a Chinese-Indonesian I didn't have a lot of chances to wear qipao, mostly because Chinese Indonesians kinda have their own culture, [perhaps]? And also because in a way I don't feel Chinese? I feel Indonesian first, then Australian? Hahaha.

Emileigh: Ha, a multicultural identity can definitely confuse things! How do you feel wearing cheongsam?  Are you comfortable, or has it taken some getting used to? Why is that?

Nora: I feel comfortable wearing cheongsam though it did feel like it's very traditional or costume-y. I guess you don't even see them being worn in daily life in China, so I was a bit self conscious. Though, as you can imagine, anything that I wear does attract attention... Vintage life, no?

Emileigh: You mentioned in your qipao post that you want to be  sure you wear it respectfully.  How are some ways you ensure that?

Nora: I want to wear qipao respectfully so I make sure I research the looks from the different decades. I wanted to make sure that the qipao I pick isn't a costume or isn't offensive. Like, if I wear a dragon embroidered satin cheongsam I would feel like it's rather offensive [because of being so stereotypical or costume-y]. The funny thing is, in a way, I feel like I should be allowed to wear it as a Chinese but I'm not really Chinese... Like, if compared to a white person who's spent years living in China I'm probably "less Chinese"?

Flashback Summer: Intercultural Vintage - Questions on Qipao Cheongsam

It's good to hear from some ladies with firsthand experience with Chinese culture/heritage!

I've also noticed that sometimes traditional clothing is seen as passé or old-fashioned until someone of another culture gets excited about it.  Sometimes having an "outsider" express admiration for a traditional piece can make "insiders" realize its awesomeness once again, perhaps even helping to revive a dying industry.

Author Thuy Linh N. Tu noticed this, too, and writes in her book The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion, "...Western interest in Asian chic [in the 90s] had very tangible material effects.  This can be seen in the ways that it altered the fashion landscape in Asia itself. When the cheongsam entered international fashion, for instance, the trend stimulated a new market for the garment among young consumers in China. The number of cheongsam boutiques grew, and young brides began to wear them as a part of their wedding ceremonies again. (pg. 128-129)"

Flashback Summer: Intercultural Vintage - Questions on Qipao Cheongsam

For me, personally, I would be willing to wear a qipao someday.  While I don't currently own a cheongsam/qipao, I would be honored to do so when the right one comes along.  I love the beauty of the garment and that it is made to accent the natural beauty of each woman and help her look her best. I admire the craftsmanship and tradition of a garment that has survived political upheaval, war, and societal changes. I would always wear it with respect, and perhaps my love and support for qipao would help the industry and skill of cheongsam-making thrive far into the future.

While I have shared opinions from ladies I know personally who are more supportive of non-Chinese wearing qipao, there are many, many opinions in the world.  I've linked to several different sources and opinions to grow in your knowledge of qipao below, and I encourage you to read different thoughts on the subject.

So after that lengthy and informative post, let's get to it! 

Acknowledging the diverse opinions on the subject from both Chinese and non-Chinese sources, how do you feel?  Would you wear a qipao?  Why or why not?  If you would, how would you ensure you wear it respectfully?

Flashback Summer: Intercultural Vintage - Questions on Qipao Cheongsam

Explore more about qipao:
Who Gets to Wear a Cheongsam? The politics of cultural appropriation get more complicated when you're mixed race, like me
- 9 Qipao-Related Questions You Can Feel Free to Never Ever Ask
- Speaking of China: Western Women Can't Wear Qipaos?
The Cheongsam: How 5 Celebrities Wore It Right
Qipao Love (Pinterest board)
Cultural Appropriation and the Qipao (Cheongsam): ...a matter of opinion?
- In the Mood for Qipao - ... Reviving and Capitalizing on China's Own Cultural Heritage

20 comments

  1. Yes, like most garments of other cultures: wear it respectfully!
    I would wear a Cheongsam, if I found one that I liked.
    I like the comment that May made "It is when the Qipao is worn as a fancy dress party costume with all sorts of funny items making it a clowning effort and undermining the beautiful authencity of the garment."
    I think the main thing to keep in mind with any garment, whether it is a turban, a pair of moccasins, or a cheongsam: these are not costumes, they are actually garments, so treat them as such!
    Thanks Emileigh for another great intercultural post that gets me thinking!
    The Artyologist

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    1. Thank YOU for another insightful comment!

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  2. Hello dear.
    I've just left a comment on your Instagram, but I do wish to leave a mark over here as well. your question has stricken me quite strongly.
    The current popularity was because the issue of wearing other nation's garments was very popular lately - after a weird faux-pas one of our female diplomats has done by wearing a burka. She has stated she "tried to respect the other culture" - but it turned out like she was wearing a costume, and almost looked like a mockery.
    One should be VERY cautious when choosing weather or not to incorporate a national and ethnic clothes that are not your own.
    I, for one, am not "for" wearing the Qipao, since I don't think I could make it look decent and respectable, and I'm afraid it'll turn out like I'm wearing a Halloween costume.

    Marija

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    1. I think there's a big difference between a burka and a qipao, though. A burka is worn for religious reasons, and wearing one immediately ties you to Islam. Qipao, though, isn't religious or ceremonial clothing. Although it's special, it was just everyday clothing in China that lots of ladies wore. Obviously you shouldn't wear one if you feel weird about it, but I don't think using a burka as your standard for all cultural clothing is wise or fair.

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    2. Right; and then imagine my surprise to see a diplomat from European country wearing one just "for show"?

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  3. I have owned and worn several qipao over the years but always in a respectful way. I also recently bought a vintage yukata kimono and hanhaba obi which I completely adore. I love Asian garments and am really interested in their history and construction. I would never wear them in a costumey way that pokes fun at that culture, just as I'd never wear vintage style clothing in a costumey way. For me, that amounts to the same thing.
    Ever since rewatching Lust/Caution for the umteenth time recently I've really, really wanted to make a traditional 1930s qipao in a lightweight linen or cotton, very much in the style of the 1920s one in your post. I'm going to bookmark that image for inspiration! xx

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    1. Oooo, that sounds like a really lovely project! Yes, wearing something authentically as it was meant to be worn can make a big difference.

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  4. Just yesterday I bought a pattern with this kind of asymmetrical top, which is what I bought if for. I don't know if I'll ever make it as shown. I just don't wear straight skirts or sheath style dresses.

    I don't see a problem at all with what people call "cultural appropriation" but I really wish I knew what is meant by wearing something "respectfully".

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    1. I think a couple people here have described "respectfully" as not being intended as a kitschy costume or "sexy dress", and Nora said she respected the look by styling her vintage qipao authentically, as Chinese ladies in the 1940s did.

      Someone on IG summed it up like this: Intent and context. Wearing it with a good intent of wearing something beautiful, not because you think it looks funny or to caricaturize someone. Then for context, being sure you wear it in a place that it's appropriate. Wearing a qipao to a Halloween party, for example, makes it look like you think it's a costume. Wearing it to a nice dinner, on the other hand, gives it the respect it deserves. Does that help a little bit?

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    2. Yeah, I get that. I just worry about making some kind of "mistake" because some people are hyper-sensitive. I have no intention of disrespecting anyone; I just want to wear pretty things.

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  5. I own and wear frequently two different quipao. One I had custom made for me while visiting Beijing. Throughout the process of being picking out fabric, being measured, and trying on the finished dress, everyone seemed both pleased and excited that I - as a non-Chinese person - would show interest in their cultural dress.
    I think people like it when what they love and appreciate is loved and appreciated by other people.

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    1. I've seen that a lot too. Who doesn't like it when someone ooo's and aaaah's over something from your heritage, that they're impressed? I think more people get upset when someone wears a qipao as a costume or as some new fad without acknowledging the culture that created it.

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  6. Mmh, yes, it's definitely a complex subject here. Great post, I loved hearing your perspective on this one!

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  7. I've had two experiences wearing them. One to a jr high dance (in the 90's, which as you noted they were having a popular moment) and felt like I looked awesome:)
    And once as a teenager trying on a vintage one on a second hand shop fitting room. It was too small, I got it on but couldn't get it off and had a fitting room panic attack...obviously I did find my way out eventually or I wouldn't be typing this...
    Neither story addresses whether I felt it was cultural appropriation, I guess as a white teenager in the 90's cultural appropriation wasn't really even a concept on my radar.
    I guess I've generally just worn whatever I liked and found beautiful and didn't really think much about what other people thought about what I chose to wear.

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    1. That's pretty much the way I am. I never thought about it until very recently. I think, generally, (and you really can't generalize about any group of people) that we white people worry more about this sort of thing more than anyone else.

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    2. Well, I think it's because white people have tended to inappropriately borrow this sort of thing more often than other people groups, too.

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  8. I have to agree with what is said above- as long as the qipao isn't a costume then it should be okay. There isn't a religious, and specific cultural ritual associated with it. It also has evolved so much over the years. I don't personally have a qipao, but I always wanted one when I was little (I was a big fan of Chinese/Asian cultures.) Looking back what I wanted probably wouldn't be culturally appropriate XD You know, bright red silk with gold dragons- very costumey.

    I think today I would wear a qipao if it had a lot of Western influence. Like if the dress had a qipao top but a different bottom. Or the dress would have a very western pattern like the qipao dresses in In The Mood For Love.

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  9. well done grat post! It was such a pleasure to read it and look at all those adorable photos.

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  10. I know I'm a little late to the discussion, but I find your post even more timely and appropriate in the light of the recent re-issue of Simplicity 8244, a 50's qipao/cheongsam-style dress.

    Just an FYI, a favorite book of mine on 1930's fashion "Elegance in an Age of Crisis" has a whole chapter dedicated to the qipao/chenesogram. I think that chapter takes a very different outlook that is quite interesting.

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  11. Adorable pictures of 1950s,loving all these looks.Thanks for sharing such helpful post.
    http://paperdollz.co.uk

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