Published Sunday, July 22, 18 | By
All students of fashion know how the 20th century transformed women’s clothing in the West. Corsets were loosened, hemlines rose, and designers like Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent famously dressed ladies in trousers and tuxedo jackets.
Less documented was a similar fashion overhaul in China, which is now the subject of an exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of History. “The Evergreen Classic: Transformation of the Qipao,” showing until Sept. 13, is a beautifully presented, and sometimes humorous, display of 280 Chinese gowns created over the last 130 years. The exhibition is augmented by photographs and commentary showing how the bulky Qing Dynasty robe — which covered everything but a woman’s face and hands — altered and shrank until it became the slinky “cheongsam” worn today, while retaining the gown’s distinctive diagonal lines. Unlike the Western dress, which has a vertical construction, the qipao follows the flow of wrapped fabric.
“We wanted to highlight the qipao’s role in history, and how it came to have greater meaning,” said Terence Cheung, assistant curator of the Museum of History. “The dress changed with the times.”
The exhibit’s earliest examples, Manchu gowns from the late 19th century, are the most striking. These elaborate creations adorn wide racks in glass cases, not mannequins, to better display their swaths of heavily embroidered silk. Even a gown tagged as being “smart casual” had exquisite peonies and butterflies hand-sewn onto a crimson backdrop.
The photographs include images from inside the Forbidden City in Beijing before the fall of the emperors. One undated portrait shows the stern Empress Cixi surrounded by ladies of the court, while a snapshot captures their more modestly dressed servants. Across the Pacific — and a world away in terms of modernity — Sun Yat-sen, a founding father of Republican China, poses for a 1901 family picture in Honolulu, with the men in Western suits and bow ties, and the women in traditional qipao.
The photos give a good sense of the silhouette that was fashionable in the imperial court. Extremely thin women and teenage girls wore heavy, multi-layered garments and enormous headpieces that looked precariously balanced on their tiny necks. (One comment from several spectators was that the collars on the qipaos looked impossibly small). The women wearing this rather voluminous combination were perched on top of unnaturally tiny and painfully bound feet.
Each section of the exhibit, which is divided by historical era, is prefaced with a quote from a 1943 book, “Chinese Life and Fashions,” by the Chinese novelist Eileen Chang. She describes the female models of this period as being “pleasantly unobtrusive, one of the most desirable qualities in a woman.”
Change came with the fall of imperial China, which ushered in the Republican period (1912-49), as well as reforms and more education for women. Smart young women began wearing what was called “civilized attire” at the time.
Yet another Sun Yat-sen family picture, from 1912, features young women in wide trousers and high heels, though still paired with loose Chinese-styled tops. A 1916 photo from an elite Christian school in Beijing shows schoolgirls in pleated knee-length skirts and jaunty short jackets with sleeves pushed up the elbows — outfits that would have been considered revealing several decades earlier.
In the 1920s, the original qipao, the long Manchurian gown, re-emerged. Long gowns were in style again, only this time without the layers underneath. The wide bodice was slimmed down to a more natural A-line, making for a more comfortable garment. Paradoxically, these long gowns reflected a period style of men’s clothing. According to the exhibition, that women could also wear them was seen as a step toward equality.
The show becomes much more fun around the time of the Jazz Age, with the advent of the Chinese pop culture aesthetic. Hong Kong calendars and Shanghai advertisements made good use of pretty girls in the tighter, shorter modern “cheongsam” (or “long shirt”) that evolved from the qipao. Posters made from free picture cards given away with cigarettes showed qipao-clad girls fishing or playing tennis.
“There were new elements in the 1950s, like tapered waists, or darts at the bust and waist,” Mr. Cheung said. “The qipao merged with Western dress. In the early 1970s, with the introduction of the miniskirt, there were some very short qipao.”
“In the 1960s, many more Hong Kong women started to do professional work in offices, and those who were from the middle class and upper class wore qipao to work,” Mr. Cheung added. “These were different from the flowery, fussy qipao of the past. They were simple and convenient, with modern zippers and press studs that were easier than the old flower buttons.”
Earlier in the 20th century, Chinese women innovatively added foreign influences. High-collared, Chinese silk gowns were paired with stockings, pumps, cardigans, fur stoles. Women styled their hair in marcelled waves.
Dresses from the 1930s and 1940s had slits up the side, both to free up movement and to show a little leg. By the 1960s, the cheongsam was oozing with sex appeal, as evidenced by an iconic photo of two women in Wan Chai, Hong Kong’s red light district, in dresses so tight that the viewer can glimpse the outline of their undergarments from behind.
One of the most eye-catching rooms is the one with dozens of 1950s and ’60s dresses in every color imaginable, displayed on mannequins in a wide arc. With no glass separating the viewer from the garment, it feels like walking into an amazing retro clothing boutique.
The section dedicated to the 1970s and ’80s starts getting campy. A video shows the “cheongsam competition” of the Miss Hong Kong beauty pageant, complete with blue eye shadow, feathered hairdos and a young Maggie Cheung. (She came in second.)
In the 1980s and ’90s, the dress picked up flourishes that, arguably, never should have been added to a Chinese gown, like shoulder pads and ruffles.
The last part of the exhibit celebrates the modern cheongsam and includes the lovely red and gold outfit worn by the Beijing Olympic hostesses in 2008. Of note is a Blanc de Chine gown with flowers in a diagonal pattern to show off the qipao’s distinctive structure. But some pieces by local young designers had so many embellishments that it was hard to discern any Chinese roots at all.
There were a few obvious gaps in this history of the qipao. Missing was Suzie Wong, the fictional Hong Kong hooker with the heart of gold. She was, for better or worse, one of the best-known wearers of the cheongsam. It would have also been nice to see segments on Shanghai Tang and Vivienne Tam, the two brands that have done the most for spreading the popularity of the Chinese dress internationally.
But the greatest omission is that of a catalog, although the museum is considering publishing one at the end of the year. The gowns and the archival materials came from a wide range of collections, both public and private. Given the effort it must have taken to assemble this exhibition, plus the rarity of comprehensive shows dedicated to Chinese fashion history, it would be a shame if there is no final document of it.