The Modernization of Traditional Chinese Hanfu and Qipao

It is difficult to define traditional Chinese clothing as one specific style since there are so many different types of clothing and styles depending on the time and dynasty, they appeared in. However, if we were to highlight two very distinct traditional garments as the most well-known and influential, these would be the Hanfu, which literally means “Han Dynasty clothing” in Chinese, and the qipao, which translates as “the Qi people gown”. Although, these are both some of the oldest traditional clothing, they still have a great influence in modern Chinese fashion, referred to as the modern qipao or “New” Hanfu and qipao.

Let’s look at the history behind these two traditional garments and their evolution to their modernized version in today’s Chinese fashion.

The Hanfu:

Hanfu is a traditional Chinese outfit which has been prevalent for a long time in Chinese history as it appeared firstly in the Qin Dynasty, 200 B.C, until the Ming Dynasty, around the year 1600. As mentioned before, Hanfu refers to the Han people clothing, thus it was created for the Han people and distinguishes itself from the clothing of other ethnic minority groups. In the Western Zhou Dynasty, hanfu was used to indicate a person’s social status as it was a time of strict hierarchical set up. Can you believe that the differences in the length of a skirt or the wideness of a sleeve were an indication of a person’s rank in society?

A traditional Hanfu is a long gown, with long sleeves and a sash used to secure the garment around the waist instead of buttons. It is characterized by colorful embroidery and a crossed collar with a right lapel (the left collar crosses over the right one). The two main designs a Hanfu can have is either as a one-piece dress or as a two-piece skirt or trouser combo which includes underwear, an inner layer and an overcoat. To complete the traditional costume accessories such as a jade belt and jewelry as well as a shawl are added.

On the other hand, the “new Hanfu” has more influence from the Western style of clothing and thus, integrates these aforementioned traditional characteristics of the traditional Hanfu with a more functional and stylish touch. The goal of the new Hanfu was to bring back wearing it in everyday life since it had become a garment used only for special occasions or formal events. This was because the traditional Hanfu gained a reputation for being inconvenient and difficult to wear compared to alternative modern clothing. By making the modern Hanfu comfortable and more varied in style it became popular to wear everyday especially for young people, children and teachers. The main elements of Hanfu are still maintained like the cross-collar, silk embroidery and retro patterns but designers have focused on making the shape of the Hanfu more fitted and unique to each body. Designers are willing to adapt Hanfu to the needs of today, which keep changing and shifting, and bring its own flair and style to present life.


Qipao was a garment which appeared in the 1920s inspired by the long gown type garments worn in the Qing Dynasty by the Manchu people. It evolved to become the qipao which was named “national dress” up until the 1950s. Traditionally, it was a long, loose dress which had no slits or very short slits in the side. It is usually made of silk and is embroidered with different kinds of flowers, with thick laces trimmed at the collar, sleeves and edges. Qipao was initially designed for upper class women as it tried to convey their elegance and modesty and so it was not meant to be very displaying!

This meant that, originally, the dress covered the whole body almost completely and very loosely. This was hardly considered fashionable or stylish even at that time! That’s why in the 1930s, the traditional qipao was redesigned, adding western patterns to exalt the beauty and curves of a woman’s body. Today, qipao has regained its popularity and is mostly worn for special or formal occasions and has a much more westernized influence and appeal. The main differences which characterize the modern qipao are its fitted cut, right side knot buttons and two wide openings at both sides of the hips. With this regained popularity, factory made qipaos has become widely sold in Chinese shops, but it is hard to find good quality tailor made ones. If you are looking for an excellent quality qipao, Interact China is the right place to buy it! We partner with professional tailors to provide you with a handmade craftsmanship with delicate details and quality materials. Below are some examples of the qipaos we sell, which are divided into Deluxe velvet, premium silk and vintage cocktail qipaos.

Despite the distinctive characteristics which draw the Hanfu and qipao apart, they both have a deep cultural meaning which is kept alive through the transformation to more modern versions of the original garment. So, which one do you prefer? We would love to know your thoughts in the comments and hope you have learnt a bit more about the culture and history of traditional Chinese clothing!

About Interact China

“A Social Enterprise in E-commerce Promoting Oriental Aesthetic Worldwide!”

Aileen & Norman co-founded Interact China in 2004 with specialization in fine Oriental Aesthetic products handmade by ethnic minorities & Han Chinese. Having direct partnerships with artisans, designers, craft masters and tailors, along with 13 years of solid experience in e-commerce via, we are well positioned to bridge talented artisans in the East with the rest of the world, and directly bring you finely selected products that are of good quality and aesthetic taste.

So far we carry 3000+ goods covering Ladies Fashion via, Kungfu Fashion, Home Furnishings, Babies & Kids, Painting Arts, Textile Arts, Carving Arts, Tribal Jewelry Art, Wall Masks and Musical Instruments. Our team speak English, French, German, Spanish and Italian, and serve customers worldwide with passion and hearts.

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New Shanghai Style Mandarin Dresses

Shanghai has been China’s main fashion center for the past century, and today’s trends can be summarised into the 4 following categories.

1) Shanghai Classic

Traditional elements are applied, such as fine trimming, ornate buttons, and elaborate embroidery. Originating from Suzhou, a city near Shanghai, “Su Xiu”, the Su embroidery is the main characteristic and has been famous for centuries.Mandarin dresses in the Shanghai classic category are meant for special occasions.


2) Shanghai Natural

Mandarin dresses in this category are comfortable, for casual activities, such as hanging out with friends.


3) Shanghai Cosmopolitan

These outfits blend traditional Mandarin dress styles with functionality to create what could be described as ‘work wear chic’.


4) Shanghai Youthful

The Mandarin dress is given a youthful and modern update to create fun and trendy dresses aimed at a younger audience.


We hope you’ve found a style you like!


by Hannah

Qipao today

Although Qipao are no longer worn as daily wear dresses, there has been a surge in popularity of the garment in recent years.

82.pngA typical Shanghai Qipao store

Notably, over 2000 ladies wore their Qipao dresses proudly to attend the fifth Shanghai Cheongsam Salon at Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre on May 20, 2012. The goal of the event was to promote and share the elegant etiquette of wearing a Qipao.

As a devout admirer of the Qipao, Ms Wang, who attended the event, explained that she has over 52 Qipao dresses including a specially altered one with a back slit to wear when cycling. She would like to see the Qipao being worn more often by women. The club itself  has a Culture Centre in the Xuhui district of Shanghai where members are required to wear Qipao to join activities such as exhibitions, flower arrangement, tea or dance performances. They also run external events such as lectures or cultural afternoons to an increasing public audience.

Here are links to some documentaries following the evolution of the Chinese Qipao to modern times by China’s international television channel CCTV:

Sources and interesting articles on the Shanghai Cheongsam Salon:

by Hannah

What is a Qipao?

81.pngA poster of women wearing Qipao in the 1920s/30s.

The Cheongsam (known as Qipao in Mandarin, previously called the Ch’ipao in the West) is the dress that most westerners associate with China. It originated from a type of Manchurian female garment and has a rich history, but has undergone a lot of change over time. The Qipao dress is supposed to represent the interior elegance of the woman wearing it.

The main characteristics of Qipao are; the mandarin collar, fitted waist, Chinese “frog” (knotted) buttons, hemmed slits on two sides, and a tailored form fit. Usually, Qipaos are made from satin brocade, silk, or cotton. With their impressive embroideries, Qipaos can be regarded as exquisite works of art that embody a great deal of beauty, passion, resilience and love. On the other hand, the Qipao also represents an old art that is at risk of dying out. Nowadays, Qipaos display a mix of Chinese and Western clothing styles.

Over 300 years ago, Qipaos were custom made by tailors for ladies of noble birth or wealthy families as a garment symbolic of high status. They became the outfit of choice for important social gatherings, including Chinese traditional weddings, and even today, for some, to wear a Qipao is to act like an elegant lady of status. In some ways, the Qipao can be said to reflect a woman’s inner self, personality, style and vision. For the Chinese New Year, Chinese girls often wear a Qipao, because they consider the Qipao as a positive sign that the year ahead will be better than the last!

by Hannah

Chinese Cheongsam Qipao

Cheongsam,also known as Qipao or mandarin gown, is a body-hugging one-piece Chinese dress for women with distinctive Chinese features and enjoys a growing popularity in the international world of high fashion.


When the early Manchu rulers came to China, they organized certain people, mainly Manchus, into “banners” (qi) and called them “banner people” (qiren), which then became loosely the name of all Manchus. The Manchu women wore normally a one-piece dress which, likewise, came to be called “qipao” or “banner dress.” Although the 1911 Revolution toppled the rule of the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty (1644-1912 CE), the female dress survived the political change and, with later improvements, has become the traditional dress for Chinese women.


The evolution of the cheongsam is interesting. The traditional Qipao was just a long loosely-fitted and baggy dress. The women were required to wear it when then Qing dynasty forbade the use of Han Fu clothing carrying the penalty of death. It does not reveal much, only the head, hands and tips of the toes. But through the years, it was tailored to become more fitting and modern to fit the standard cheongsam we know today. The dress was developed in 1900s when the Qing dynasty ended. People sought to upgrade the Qipao with sleeker and fitting designs according to their taste.

73Two women wear cheongsam in 1930s, a commercial advertisement in Shanghai74

The updated version is a tight, body-hugging style with high cut and underpants which were emphasizes the shape of women. It is classic yet different greatly from the traditional design of the Qipao. The styles also vary according to change. As the world became more westernized, the basic Qipao design also changed. Sleeveless and high-necked motif became popular as well as bell-sleeves design. Beaded, satiny and velvety Qipao were also created for formal wear.

Easy to slip on and comfortable to wear, the cheongsam fits well the female Chinese figure. Its neck is high, collar closed, and its sleeves may be short, medium or full length, depending on season and taste. The dress is buttoned on the right side, with a loose chest, a fitting waist, and slits up from the sides, all of which combine to set off the beauty of the female shape.

The cheongsam is not too complicated to make. Nor does it call for too much material, for there are no accessories like belts, scarves, sashes or frills to go with it.

Another beauty of the cheongsam is that, made of different materials and to varying lengths, they can be worn either on casual or formal occasions. In either case, it creates an impression of simple and quiet charm, elegance and neatness. No wonder it is so much liked by women not only of China but of foreign countries as well.