Simplification during the Sino-Japanese war
With the start of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937, the mood of China and Shanghai became considerably dampened. China had by some accounts escaped the Great Depression of the 1930s, but it suffered immensely from WWII. By the early 1940s, the flamboyant qipaos (or in Cantonese, cheongsam) of the 30s were no longer considered appropriate or affordable by many (prices of fabric had risen significantly due to war).
And accordingly, the early 1940s qipao became extremely restrained. Sweeping hemlines of the 1930s were reduced to mid-calf or knee length, high collars were lowered, sleeves became non-existent in the summer. Materials, trimmings, pankous (knotted buttons used on qipaos) also all became very simplistic. As the renowned author Eileen Chang observed with some sharpness (张爱玲／張愛玲，who also wrote Lust, Caution 《色戒》): “No matter how you look at it, there were only subtractions – anything seemingly aesthetic, whether it served a purpose or not, was removed. What remained was simply a tight singlet, revealing the neck, arms and calves” (1942，Chinese Life and Fashions《更衣记》/《更衣記》).
Well, it is likely that in reality the changes were not so extreme for the upper classes of Shanghai. The film version of Lust, Caution was in fact set in 1940s warring Shanghai, and depicts the extravagant lives still led by the wealthy wives. But the qipaos used in the film did tend to be sleeveless, shorter, and in relatively restraint tones.
Brief revival and disappearance in Mainland China
After the end of the Sino-Japanese war in 1945, Shanghai regained its pre-war opulance, and the glamorous 1930s qipao made its return. In fact, it returned tighter, shorter, and with even more variation. The already slim silhouette from the 30s became even more fitted, and hemlines crept up to the knee from the calves. Besides all the different fabrics and trimmings tried and tested in the 30s, sequins, beading and lace also became popular.
In the brief 4-5 years until 1949, qipao gained its widest reach ever in China. It became so popular that almost every urban woman owned several in her wardrobe, no matter who she was or how she looked. In this period, “revised” qipaos – ie. those using zippers to fasten the dresses rather than just pankous, were also first created.
However, China continued in a state of civil war between the Communists and Nationalists during this period. In 1949 the Communists gained control and declared the country the People’s Republic of China (中华人名共和国／中華人民共和國). From then on, the qipao disappeared.
As the story goes, in the first ever Literary Arts Representative Conference held in Shanghai (上海第一届文学艺术工作者代表大会／上海第一屆文學藝術工作者代表大會) in July 1950, almost all of the participants were clad in the new national attire – dreary coloured Lenin and Zhongshan suits (列宁服，中山服／列寧服，中山服). That is, except for Eileen Chang, who sat in the last row in her dark grey qipao and white knit cardigan. In 1952, Chang left mainland China for Hong Kong, and subsequently moved to the US in 1955. It is speculated that she left as she felt like she did not fit into the “new China”. Nor did the qipao. Eileen Chang’s departure coincided with the absence of the qipao in China mainland for the next 30 or so years.
Hong Kong as a new fashion hub
With the demise of Shanghai as the fashion and luxury capital of East Asia post 1949, many wealthy Shanghainese families crossed the Ocean and sought refuge in Hong Kong. Along with them went the Shanghainese tailors.
Reminiscent of Shanghai in the 30s and 40s, these new immigrants tried to replicate their old lifestyle in Hong Kong. Women wore qipaos, had afternoon tea and went to parties. Their tailors continued catering to their lifestyles, and by the 50s and 60s, qipaos in Hong Kong were so tight that they were basically like a second-skin. In the Mood for Love was set in this era in Hong Kong, and anyone who has seen the film will know that Maggie Cheung’s qipaos showed off every flaw (or lack thereof) on her body (see here for a complete list of qipaos from the film).
Qipao continued to be extremely popular in Hong Kong until the 70s, when jeans and T-shirts eventually took over as everyday attire for women. But even today, the tradition of the qipao – especially for formal occasions such as weddings – remain strong in Hong Kong. Hong Kong also continues to have some of the best qipao tailors, as the original migrant Shanghainese tailors passed their craft down uninterrupted through the years.
1980s and beyond
Mainland China experienced many turbulent years between the early 50s and the late 1970s. Radical social and economic initiatives such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution caused widespread tragedy. The country was in a state of isolation, both from the world and from its own culture and history.
Gradual reform began in the early 80s after Mao Zedong’s death (毛泽东/毛澤東), and Deng Xiaoping （邓小平／鄧小平）took over reign of the country. With economic growth and social liberalization, the qipao was revived once again, and over the last 30 or so years, regained more and more of its former popularity.
Besides Hong Kong and mainland China, The tradition of the qipao has also being carried on in Taiwan, and by the Chinese diaspora throughout South East Asia: Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines. Today, some of the most innovative qipao designs can be found in these regions.
This is the end of the four-part mini series that I am writing on the history of qipao, if you missed any of the previous ones, you can find them here (Part I: the very beginning in the Qing dynasty), here (part II: 1910s and 1920s) and here (Part III: 1930s the golden era).
In what part of the world did you see your favourite qipao? Let me know by using comments below!