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Running her fingers over the red cloth and delicate gold-embroidered blossoms, my mom buttoned up my dress for me. She pushed each cloth button, coiled to look like a flower, through tiny loops of gold string. A golden ribbon running in a slant down my chest linked together these buttons. The collar tightened around my neck. The cool red silk hugged my entire body, but I felt like I was suffocating.
“You look so beautiful!” my mom said as she tied my hair into pigtails.
I was 7 years old and felt anything but. I looked way too... Chinese. As the only Asian kid in my elementary school class, I always felt like I stood out, and this dress would make me look even more different.
The dress in question was a qi-pao or cheongsam, a traditional Chinese dress worn by women. It accentuates a woman's curves, although of course at 7, I had none. It’s often floor-length, although mine went to my knees. I looked foreign, like a girl in an ancient Chinese painting.
“I don’t like it,” I told my mom.
“But why?” she said. “You look so beautiful!”
I reluctantly wore it to the annual Chinese New Year program at my Chinese school, which my parents made me go to every Sunday afternoon. The entire time, I stared at the embroidered flowers on my dress, fingering the patterns of the petals. Since it was a Chinese New Year event, I definitely wasn’t the only one in a qi-pao, but I couldn’t wait to take it off and wear “normal” clothes. I felt like the delicate flower buttons were choking me, and I felt so self-conscious about how I looked.
At the time, I didn’t know about the outfit’s rich history. The qi-pao became widespread during the Qing dynasty, beginning in the 17th century and lasting all the way until the start of the 20th century. Manchu women wore the one-piece dress, and soon the Han Chinese adopted this style as well. Originally, the qi-pao was wide and loose, not the current form-fitting and slender style, which emerged in Shanghai in the 1920s. Nowadays on the red carpet, you’ll see Chinese celebrities wear the latest style of qi-pao, fitting tightly around the body and embroidered with colorful, elegant patterns and metallic thread. The collars, sleeves, split, and dress length may vary, but the delicate, feminine concept of this garment remains consistent.
For fashion designer Jane Zhu, who runs the line Qipao by Jane, the qi-pao brought her closer to her Chinese heritage. Her mother owned two qi-paos that hung in the closet, and this eventually inspired Zhu to pursue a qi-pao business.
“I was born in China, but I moved to the US as a child,” Zhu told Racked. “Growing up, I was very, very American and didn’t think about my Chinese heritage, but I was always interested in beautiful dresses. My mom had two qi-paos: One was red, and one was gold.”
Zhu moved to Shanghai as an adult, where she ordered some qi-paos. As she had them tailored, her fascination grew.
“I discovered that it’s not just choosing one fabric and getting the dress made. You can choose the lining, the buttons, and even the silk,” Zhu said. “I think the most important thing about a nice qi-pao is that it fits, because it’s one piece of fabric that gets cut to fit you. If it doesn’t fit around [your] hips, it will be uncomfortable to wear.”
Her passion eventually led her to starting a qi-pao business. Today, when Zhu takes orders for qi-pao, the first step is asking the customer what kind of fabric she wants. Once the fabric has been selected, the customer and tailor can work together on details like lining and buttons that make it unique. And finally, the high Mandarin silk collar is one of the most recognizable parts of a qi-pao.
“They’re extremely feminine. It’s allowed Chinese women to hold onto their sensuality and to know that’s definitely part of what a woman can be, and I think they’re more popular than ever now,” Zhu said.
The qi-pao, kimono, and other traditional Asian garments are often appropriated; they’re worn as a costume to highlight the foreign, rather than the culture behind it. Recently, supermodel Karlie Kloss came under fire for posing in a geisha spread for Vogue. Wearing kimono-inspired outfits, Kloss posed in a tea house, carried a basket of cherry blossoms, and even stood next to a sumo wrestler. Behind this choice of style was an entire staff of stylists and editors who approved it. Likewise, a few years ago on tour, Katy Perry wore a costume that seemed to be some kind of mashup between the qi-pao and the kimono. And of course, the stage didn’t lack in cherry blossoms and fans. Both these incidents (just two of many) are a form of “yellowface,” where white women — and entire organizations — exploit traditional Asian clothing to appear more exotic, mysterious, and sexy.
“There’s a long history [of people], in particular white women from the West, appropriating Asian fashion, using it as a cultural status or to show worldliness,” said Douglas Ishii, assistant professor in Asian-American studies at Northwestern University. “In terms of fashion, there’s a long history that goes back centuries in Europe, as part of European colonialism and conquest.”
For Europeans, appropriation was a sign of conquest of the East. Unfortunately, this type of appropriation has continued until today. It’s one thing to appreciate the culture and context of a traditional garment, but another to treat it like a costume or a trend.
“Central to Orientalism is a real interest in Asian things but not Asian people, so there’s a question of accountability,” Ishii said. One main question is, where is the money going? If you’re supporting designers who rip off traditional Asian garments for their “trendy” styles, that’s cultural appropriation and disrespect at its core. Instead, learn more about the history and customs behind these clothing items, and support designers of color.
Models, designers, and celebrities have tried to steal from our culture, but meanwhile, I try to reclaim it. I can’t even remember the last time I wore a qi-pao out, other than that time when I was 7. But a couple years ago, my mother visited Taiwan and bought me another one. The dress is white with blue flowers splashed on the front, like a china dish. It has a navy ribbon slanted down the right side with blue buttons, and it streams down the side of the dress.
“This blue china represents a feature of China,” my mom said when she gave it to me. “It’s blue and white and very elegant.” She added, “The buttons are very special. They’re oblique.”
It’s my first women’s qi-pao, and this time, instead of being a little girl in a red dress and pigtails, I have curves to fill it out. It’s a bit modified from the traditional qi-pao, made of cotton rather than silk.
“The best material is silk, but since you’re young, I didn’t buy that,” my mom said. “When you’re married, we’ll have a silk one made for you.”
That day will be many years from now. But in the meantime, I tried on my new dress. When I put it on, the cool cloth hugged my body, and I fingered the blue flowers sprouting on the dress. This time, I was no longer scared of my identity. I was proud to wear it, and my mom was right: I looked elegant.