This is part II of a mini series that I’m writing on the history of the qipao. If you missed part I (about the origins of the qipao from the Manchu-controlled Qing dynasty), be sure to catch up here.
The Republic of China and the May-Fourth movement (五四运动／五四運動)
The history of the qipao (or Cheongsam in Cantonese) took a sudden turn in 1911-12, along with the rest of China. With the revolution that overthrew imperial China, Chinese culture underwent seismic changes, and the qipao was not exempt.
A new government led by Sun Yat-sen (Sun Zhong Shan, 孙中山／孫中山) was setup, and the country officially proclaimed The Republic of China. The large fancy hair pieces (大拉翅) and stilted flower-vase shoes (花盆底) characteristic of the Qing dynasty disappeared entirely, and even the qipao itself became confined to only wealthy Manchu families. Instead, most Chinese women began to wear a two piece outfit consisting of a top (very similar in style to a qipao, but shorter) and a long skirt. For the educated, liberal minded and fashion forward, trousers were worn for the first time.
In the next decade, these tops underwent many changes, as did Chinese society. The New Culture Movement (1915-1921，新文化运动／新文化運動) progressed, and culminated in the 1919 May-Fourth student-led protests (五四运动／五四運動) against the Treaty of Versailles, which had provisions to grant parts of Shandong (山东／山東, a province to the north of Shanghai) to Japan.
It was hardly surprising then that female students, especially those who had studied abroad, came to be at the forefront of fashion during this period. They popularized the “New Culture Attire” (文明新装), which by the early to mid 1920s consisted of a top with bell-shaped elbow-length sleeves, and a midi-length skirt with stockings. The most classic of these outfits was a blue top and black skirt, which became so iconic that some years later was designated as ‘national attire’ by the government.
The late 1920s and the new vest dress (马甲／馬甲)
In the mid 1920s, a new version of the traditional vest appeared (majia, 马甲／馬甲). This vest was worn in the Qing dynasty over qipao for warmth and decoration, but the new style was much longer, and trendy women began to wear these over their tops as a variation of the two piece top-and-skirt outfit. It wasn’t long before women began to attach the two sleeves of their tops directly onto the vest, creating the illusion of layering, and began to wear these vests alone as dresses. These vest dresses again resembled the qipao of a decade earlier, and finally brought qipaos out of recluse.
The new and revised qipao still had the same silhouette as the “New Culture Attire” – bell-sleeves, high-collar, hemline reaching a few inches above the ankles, and quite loose in form. Importantly, gone were the thick, elaborate materials of the Qing dynasty, with their multiple layers of trimmings and embroidery. Instead lighter, plainer fabrics were used, and along with the shorter sleeves and skirts, the female body finally began to show through.
By the end of the 1920s, influenced by the women’s movement and fashion of the west, the new qipao had evolved to bear a distinctly flapper flair. The waist were slightly tapered but still loose, the bottoms had scalloped or zig-zagged edging, shortened to just below the knee. Women had short bobs, wore long strands of pearls and elegant T-bar heels.
In 1929, the government officially designated the National dress code (国服／國服) for the Republic of China. For women, it consisted of either the iconic blue top/black skirt “New Culture Attire” ensemble, or a long, ankle-length qipao. Perhaps this reflected the increasing popularity of qipao, or perhaps it prompted it. Either way, there is no doubt that by the 1930s qipao had become the national dress.
This signalled the start of the golden era, for qipao, and for the city it flourished in – the Paris of the East, Shanghai.
This is part II of a four-part mini series that I have written on the history of qipao, you can find the others here (Part I: the very beginning in the Qing dynasty), here (Part III: 1930s the golden era) and here (Part IV: 1940s and beyond).