Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Art of the Qipao

During my recent trip to Malaysia I stopped for a few days in Hong Kong, where I was lucky to catch an extraordinary exhibit at the Museum of History: The Evergreen Classic – Transformation of the Qipao. Tracing the evolution of the qipao (or cheongsam, as it's known in Cantonese) from its origins as the gown worn by Manchu women during the Qing dynasty to its golden age in 1930s Shanghai and subsequent efflorescence in post-war Hong Kong, the show features an astonishing 280 qipao as well as more than 400 photographs.

As you can see from my photos below, it's a sight to behold, whether you're a dedicated lover or just a casual fan. I was so overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety on display that I planned to return for a second visit but didn't have the time. Unfortunately, no catalog was published for this exhibit (a colossal missed opportunity that I'm still scratching my head about), so get yourself to Hong Kong by September 13 if you can't bear to miss this rare and precious spectacle.

A PDF of the exhibition pamphlet is available here.


Eddy said...

Hi Dave,
wow this looks like an amazing exhibition.
did they have many photos from the 1950s and 1960s?

In 1997 The powerhouse museum Sydney had an exhibition called
Evolution and Revolution: Chinese Dress 1700s – 1900s. They also produced a wonderful catalog.
shame they didn’t do the same here.

By the way at a city art bookstore i came across a wonderful book by Dutch publisher Pepin press.
its a bit pricey though.
Cheongsam PEPIN Fashion, Textiles & Patterns 01


Kingwho? said...

Great subject and photos, Dave. I have seen pics of my fiances mothers wedding Qipao's. She had a red one and a yellow one. Both with beautiful embroidery. One had a very intricate but elegant Phoenix embroidered down the side of the dress.

My fiance's family have mentioned flying her over too China to have her Qipao's hand crafted. They may settle on passing her measurements off to family members living in China and ask for them to find a place to get her dressed made.

ewaffle said...

You are so right--this is an exhibit that just cries out for a catalog, especially shown by the quality of the pamphlet that accompanied the show.

Love the photos, especially the ones that show some of the upclose detail of the fabric and embroidery. The third picture from the bottom shows a really strange garment, I think. It looks like an anti-qipao, as if it was designed to look dowdy and frumpy with those very strange huge lapels and the busy but still static looking (I realize that makes no sense) pattern of big, ugly and stylized "things"--for want of a better term.

sbk said...

Wonderful photos of a interesting exhibit. Thankfully for us you were allowed to take pictures. What does Evergreen Classic refer to?

My favorite is the gray/white loose Qipao which looks like it's sewn with bias strips with a textured line in the center. Also the photo of the see thru Qipao is cool as you can see a red one hanging behind it.

The pdf has a garment that William Chang (one of my favorite costume designers in addition to his other talents) designed for Josephine Siao for her wedding. I wonder where the many Qipao he designed for IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE are.

Kingwho-your future mother-in-law's wedding Qipao sound beautiful.

dleedlee said...

Really nice photos, Dave! I especially like the gray one with the zigzags, looks very Art Deco-like.

Another one looks like one that my mom wore a few weeks ago. She dug it out from her pre-USA days for a birthday celebration!

duriandave said...

-- Eddy, yeah there were lots of photos from that era. One of the reasons I wanted to come back was that I ended up skipping most of the photos because of museum fatigue. Thanks for the book recommendations! I might pick up that catalog for the Sydney exhibition.

-- Kingwho?, maybe you and your fiance can take an early honeymoon to Shanghai to get her qipao made. :)

-- Ed, that "anti-qipao" is a strange one, which is why I had to photograph it. It looks like it's covered with petri dishes. It was interesting to see the qipao from the 60s as they incorporated the patterns of that era. Although I don't remember, I'm sure there must have been a paisley qipao!

-- sbk, I think "Evergreen Classic" just refers to the fact that the qipao is a perennial favorite that will never be considered old-fashioned. An yes, I'm so glad that photos were allowed (although video was not, as I quickly discovered).

-- Dennis, yeah that Deco qipao is one of my favorites too. I photographed some other cool examples of Deco patterns, but my digital camera has an annoying tendency to shoot out of focus unless I'm as still as a statue.

lightning in a bottle said...

i LOVE exhibits like this. i wish i could've seen it up close and personal. thanks so much for taking pictures!

oldflames said...

Dave you have made me booked my air ticket to Hong Kong mid of this month.Ahh..those beautiful qipaos are just too tempting.

duriandave said...

-- Ling, it was especially nice because nearly all of the qipao were displayed in the open, which allowed for a really good look at the fabric and piping/clasp details.

-- Oldflames, glad my photos convinced you to make a special trip to HK! ;)

hcpen said...

oh my GOODDDNESS!! Thank you duriandave for the amazing photos of the exhibit!

I just fainted and found myself in cheongsam heaven!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

For a person whom is a cheongsam lover since my teen days like me, I am so euphoric about this exhibition!:)

Too bad i won't be able to make it by Sept, i was planning hopefully a trip to china and hk in oct or dec/jan..i am sooo gonna bombard the museum of history with emails literally pleading with them to extend this precious once-in-a-lifetime exhibition!

Btw, Are the majority of the cheongsams on display there vintage originals from the 60s/50s/etc or modern imitations??

duriandave said...

Hi hcpen! I was thinking of you when I saw the exhibit. It's a shame it's not showing longer. Less than 3 months is a short time for a show like this.

As far as I know, all of the cheongsams are originals. In fact, among them are several that belonged to Lin Dai and Siao Fong Fong.

Hope you can convince the museum to extend the show! :)

Kingwho? said...

Dave, I have a few pics of my fiances mothers wedding qipao from the mid 70's. If you are interested, I could email the photos to you?

duriandave said...

Yeah, I'd love to see them! You can email me at

the.nicole.harvey said...

I had to reblog. I'm beside myself with those dresses, here's hoping that they retroactively publish a catalog!

duriandave said...

Thanks for the reblog, Nico! BTW, I saw the Shanghai exhibition catalog at several bookstores in both HK and KL. You got yourself a great distributor!

achillesgirl said...

Beautiful. Thank you for sharing the photos.

May Loh said...

Love the Qi Pao and would have been great to see this.....wish they would run this exhibition again! Especially like the unusual green clasp on the white Qi Pao....a simply beautiful garment!

duriandave said...

Hi May! Thanks for dropping by. I wish you could have seen the show. You would have been in heaven. Unfortunately, I think the chances of it happening again are pretty slim. Most of the qipao were from private collections. It's really too bad that the museum didn't publish a catalog to document the show. It would have made a spectacular coffee table book.