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
Leaves Fashion or Jin Zhi Yu Ye (金枝玉葉) on South Maoming Lu, is a large qipao brand that opened in 2001 with another location in Jiu Guang City Plaza next to Jing'an Temple. It came highly recommended from a fellow qipao tailor. Leaves designs both modern and traditional style ready-to-wear dresses. If you fit into the existing dresses, small alterations can be made, with dresses starting around 2,500rmb to 8,000rmb and up. You can also make a qipao from scratch in an existing style based on your body measurements.
Man Lou Lan (蔓楼兰) on Changle Lu is a national brand that was established in Shanghai in 1997 and now has nine stores in the city. The brand sells both traditional style and modern designs of qipaos for special occasions with elaborate designs — think feathers, rhinestones, velvet and embroidery. Prices range from 2,500rmb up past 20,000rmb.
In the global commercial mainstream, there is Shanghai Tang a luxury brand out of Hong Kong that sells modern, business casual, ready-to-wear clothes with traditional fugu (复古) elements. They have Tang jackets for men and women starting around 5,000rmb and modern riffs on qipaos, also around 5,000rmb. A knit qipao-styled top starts around 2,300rmb. If you're itching for bespoke, the brand has an Imperial Tailoring Atelier too.
Jian Jie (鉴界) formerly known as Li Gu Long (丽古龙) has been operating on Changle Lu out of the small shop for 16 years. Qipaos start around 2,000rmb off the rack with made to measure dresses about 40 percent extra in price. Here you will find traditional cuts of colorful silk patterns.
Visiting a Tailor
If you want the opportunity to flex your own design muscle, maybe pick or bring your own fabrics, visiting a private tailor is a good option. Kanagaratnam has a private tailor she brings her creative ideas to; she goes for the quality and to help promote the craft. Though the higher skilled the craftsmen, the stronger their opinions on what is or isn't appropriate in the design of a qipao. Prepare for a spirited sartorial debate.
Bespoke qipaos from private tailors will typically cost around 2,000-4,000rmb, with additional elements like hand embroidery bumping up the price by a couple more thousand.
Kanagaratnam visits Li Bei at Lan Zhi He (兰芝鹤), which has been operating for more than 10 years and used to have a shop on Maoming Lu with another in Beijing. The workshop has since moved to the Fuzhou Building by the Bund.
The Historic Shanghai society recommend tailor Zhou Zhenfeng at Dian Yi Zhi Yi Fang (典艺制衣坊) on Hongmei Lu to attendees of their annual Historic Shanghai Gala. The shop does the classic 1930s aesthetic.
Or Just Shop Online
Don’t forget about Taobao, the modern method of choice for savvy shoppers. Different styles of qipaos can be found on the online marketplace, from loose fitting cotton qipaos, to modern mini dresses with qipao elements, to standard silk qipaos in traditional styles. You can find qipaos starting at 200rmb, but there are also shops with gowns at a variety of price points starting from a few thousand and up. At online brands like Pin Shang Hua Fu's (品尚华服) Tmall store, they sell silk qipaos with modern prints for under 1,000rmb. When shopping online, you are still choosing from preset sizes small, medium, and large, without tailoring.
For a list of qipao stores visit the SmartShanghai venue directory.