Telescope: China | From Qipao to Mao to Now

April 28, 2015
– By James Elaine

Qipao (pronounced: chee-pow)

During the Qing Dynasty, 1644-1912, the Manchu rulers demanded under penalty of death, that all Han Chinese women and men wear the Qipao, or Cheongsam. At that time it was a loose fitting garment that hung straight down and covered most of the body except the hands, head, and the tips of the toes. Its design concealed the figure of the wearer, no matter the shape, and was used for social control. In Shanghai, in the 1920’s, a more fashionable and modern version of the qipao was designed, a body-hugging one-piece dress. The sleek new revealing look and gorgeous materials quickly became popular with the Han Chinese women.


Soon after the founding of the Republic of China in 1912, in an attempt to cater to contemporary sensibilities but not totally adapt western styles, Sun Yat-sen introduced a modern Chinese tunic suit, the Zhongshan suit, as a form of national dress. This suit was later to become known as the Mao suit, after the 1949 Communist Revolution, because of Mao Zedong’s fondness for wearing it in public.

It remained the standard formal dress for the first and second generations of PRC leaders but during the 1990s its popularity and symbolic strength began to decline.


My first trip to China was in 2002. What I could see of fashion at that time in the shops and on the streets was generic, unattractive, and cheap looking. There was no identity, no beauty from the past or creative hope for the future. At least that was my first impression. Fashion was not essential to life and was not available to the public. But this is not Mao’s China anymore. I moved to Beijing in 2008 and since that time, I have witnessed a new revolution in the cities of this country, a revolution in attire… for better and for worse.