Our Qipao Story—From Traditional Made-to-order to Modern Ready-to-wear

Last summer, I bought two Qipao dresses online, both turned out to be quite disappointing. The first one, described as “linen” on the website, in fact was “linen-like” synthetic fabric; the second one was silk, however, its collar was too high while its underarm button too low.

“Perhaps you can make a customized Qipao dress in a tailor’s shop when you go back to Shanghai,” Michael suggested.

Yes, I knew there were many Qipao shops in Shanghai, and a good one could be very pricy. Out of curiosity, I searched online, and found that making a Qipao dress from an OK shop would cost from five hundred to several thousand US dollars, excluding fabric; besides, it would take weeks or even months to make one dress depending on their current order schedule.

“Well, it doesn’t seem to be a practical idea to order a customized Qipao dress.” I concluded.

Since I searched Qipao dress on a Chinese social media, from that day I started to receive various Qipao-related information once I turned on the app. One day by chance, I noticed a post mentioning that a Qipao studio located in Shanghai was giving classes to people who wanted to learn in person how to hand make customized, Shanghai style Qipao dress.

“Should I go? The class will begin in ten days.” I pondered.

“Why not? You seem very interested in it.” MIchael said, “Take a break from your gardening, you deserve a vacation. Plus the fact that you can go to your hometown and visit your parents.”

Therefore, the decision was made, in less than forty-eight hours since I saw that post.

During the following two months, I lodged in the studio, spent most of my days learning: How to take measurements, how to draw patterns, how to iron, how to stitch, how to make wheat flour glue and how to roll frog buttons… There were so many things to learn, the six-week classes were absolutely not enough to finish making two Qipao dresses though I worked at night all the time as well.

(Lotus in Shanghai wearing her hand-stitched qipao dress)

It wasn’t a vacation; it demanded tremendous work, both physical and mental. Finally, I understood why a customized Qipao dress could cost so much: Labor, labor, and more labor. Even a skilled tailor needed more than a week to make just one traditional dress single-handed.

“When I was younger, among all the professions, I thought tailor was one of my favorites.”  I confessed to Michael the first day I returned to the USA, “Now after six weeks’ practicing, I think I might be wrong. I know the teacher was just supposed to teach me all the techniques, and I followed them. However, as a minimalist, personally, I don’t fully agree that we should spend so many efforts merely for one dress. It could be simplified.”

“Nothing wrong with your thought.” Michael shrugged, “Best way to learn to farm is to get your hands dirty. Now you learnt; you will know what suits you the best.”

“I would like to see a Qipao dress, made with cotton or linen fabric instead of silk; without frog buttons, without piping, as simple as a garment could be, but keeping its signature features such as the full side open and two-piece construction. It could be worn to work, to the market, to do housework, also for most events. We, people, wear the clothes, not the clothes wear us.”

“Sounds good.”  As always, Michael supported me. “Less is more. I am sure such a dress as you just described also can be beautiful and comfortable to wear. Why not put your idea into action?”

So here is the Yellow Yao Peony qipao and Sinensis qipao top we created, and more will come.

(Oil painting by Lotus "The Lady and Her Yellow Yao")