I’ll never be chosen for a best-dressed list, but over the years I’ve found one tried-and-true rule: I’ve never gone wrong with a qipao.
The qipao (pronounced chee-pow) is known as a cheongsam in Cantonese. Originally a Manchu design, a modified, form-fitting version became popular in 1920s and 30s Shanghai. Later Hong Kong women modified it even more, shortening the hemline and simplifying the fabric. Schoolgirls in Hong Kong still wear a modest version of the qipao as their school uniforms.
I first stepped into a qipao almost 20 years ago when I lived in Washington, DC, and needed something to wear to a Chinese New Year party. Along with a cheap red satin Chinatown qipao, I wore my hair in two braids, braving the blustery DC winter. I certainly stood out on the bus.
A few years later I found myself at the center of a 200+ person Chinese wedding out in the middle of Hubei province. My own wedding, in fact. My then-husband and I combed the shops in Shanghai and Wuhan, but couldn’t find a qipao (preferably red, the color of good luck in China). We finally located this number (photo above) at the silk museum in Suzhou. I bought it off the rack and cut down on what I ate for the next month. The 100F temperatures helped a bit, too.
I didn’t love the 3/4 sleeves, so my search for the perfect qipao continued. In the early 2000s, I found this faux qipao on eBay (photo above). The frog buttons were simply cosmetic, as the dress zipped in the back. I liked the linen fabric and sleeveless style, but the hemline fell to just below my knees. Not perfect.
A couple years later I found this Shanghai Tang qipao top on eBay for a steal (photo above). I’ve worn it to high holiday services, my 20th high school reunion, my tea book launch (in this photo), and countless other occasions. It never fails. But it’s still not a proper qipao.
Last year I found this beauty on Efushop.com and ordered it over the internet from Nanjing. (I took my own measurements, e-mailed them to Efushop, and selected a pattern from a choice of three photos of pre-washed cotton swatches). I love the dress, although I found myself holding the sides together all evening because the slits were quite high!
Because this black and white qipao falls to my ankles, I’m still on the look-out for something a bit more casual.
The search continues!