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High Collars and Knot Buttons: Where to Get a Qipao in Shanghai

A guide to some places in the city for getting the decidedly feminine, decidedly Chinese dress.
2020-12-15 12:00:00
Photos: Angela Leung
The qipao is perhaps the most quintessentially Chinese bit of fashion there is. But how do you go about getting one? We spoke with Tina Kanagaratnam, a lover of qipaos (she has seven) and co-founder of Historic Shanghai, to get her recommendations on where to buy a fantastic qipao.

But first!

A Little Qipao History

It's important to know where the clothes you're wearing come from, especially something as quintessentially Chinese as the qipao. The qipao (旗袍), or cheongsam (長衫) in Cantonese, evolved out of Manchurian clan dress robes of the Qing Dynasty, made in the colors of clan flags (旗). Overtime, the qipao adapted to the popular fashions of the day, from calf length flapper-esque dresses in the 1920s to the skintight, form huggers of the 1950s, but the 1930s were a golden age for qipaos. It was especially true here, where the dress remains the emblem of that early 20th century Shanghai glamour. The look is romanticized and immortalized by the Shanghai calendar girls and product advertisements of the time, which you can still find abounding at souvenir shops and vintage markets.

During the 1950s, the qipao tailors left for Hong Kong, along with many of their wealthy Shanghainese clients. While the culture shifted to austere unisex suits, the qipao makers kept plying their trade in the island city. The qipao started making a comeback in the mainland from the 1980s onward, and today, the qipao has found a place back in the wardrobes of its natural habitat: Shanghai.

Today, the qipao is still made and bought in the traditional cuts with pankou (盘口) closures a.k.a. frog closures or knot buttons, and traditional stylings, like the bright red dress for brides and deep red for mothers and aunts of the couple. The modern qipao for the modern Shanghai lady is also in vogue, mixing classic elements with current styles and needs; adding zippers, retaining the high collars, and cut as a business formal sheath dress plus the side slit, ready for an art gallery opening or a visit to the ballet.

Getting One for Yourself

Buying a qipao will vary in cost from a few hundred rmb on Taobao for ready-made dresses to over 10,000rmb for elaborate handmade garments. Most qipaos will cost around 3,000 to 4,000rmb for a special occasion dress.

Tina Kanagaratnam pointed me in the direction of Maoming Nan Lu a block north and south of Huaihai Zhong Lu, a neighborhood known as a hub of tailors, and specifically makers of qipaos. The block from Huaihai to Changle Lu is a visual metaphor for the craft industry; empty shops flank either side of any open shop. The cause for the empty units is the modern decline in demand for bespoke clothing, plus the extra blow of the pandemic.

The tailors that work out of small shop fronts or stores of larger chain brands will make a dress based on sample design patterns (yangyi 杨衣). You can buy the sample off the rack and make small alterations, or you can have the preset design tailored to your body measurements (dingzuo 定做). Most bespoke qipaos will take 3-4 weeks to complete.

Off the Rack