The elegant dress known as the qipao is regarded as a uniquely Chinese costume. When Chinese women attend important occasions or international events, many choose to wear a qipao to reflect their cultural identities.
These cultural icons are being shown in the Evergreen Classic - Transformation of the Qipao exhibition at the Museum of History from June 23 to September 13.
The museum's curator Ang Yee recently told news.gov.hk the exhibition will show the development and timeless beauty of the traditional garment.
"To Chinese the qipao is not only a piece of clothing it's a cultural symbol of China. In view of its special status, it is worth organising an exhibition introducing the dress to the public. Likewise, we have a good collection of qipao which have not been displayed before."
Evergreen classic: Museum of History Curator Ang Yee says this 80-year-old dress is one of the highlights of the Transformation of the Qipao exhibition, which features more than 270 traditional garments, many of which have been worn by legendary actresses and other celebrities.
The glamorous exhibits range from women's long gowns dating back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) to the qipao worn by the 2008 Beijing Olympics hostesses. There are also qipao worn by actresses and other celebrities, such as Christina Lee, Vera Waters, Lin Dai, Josephine Siao, Loletta Chu, Michelle Yeoh and Nansun Shi.
When Professor Charles Kao was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics last year, his wife had a Hong Kong tailor custom-design a qipao for her to wear to the ceremony. Mrs Kao said she chose to wear a qipao because the dress is a Chinese cultural symbol which highlights a woman's gracefulness, elegance and vitality. When the museum's staff heard the news they contacted Mrs Kao and asked her to loan the garment for display in the exhibition.
While the qipao is no longer worn by Hong Kong women on a daily basis, it can still be seen regularly as a uniform for students and waitresses, wedding dresses and in beauty pageants.
The exhibition features the qipao worn by Miss Hong Kong Pageant winners and other beauty queens.
"Loletta Chu is regarded as the most representative Miss Hong Kong, so we asked her to loan the qipao she wore 33 years ago when she was crowned Miss Hong Kong and she kindly agreed," Ms Ang said.
The term qipao originally referred to the long gowns worn by Manchu women during the Qing Dynasty. Those early dresses were loose fitting and embellished with exquisite embroidery.
In the 1920s an early form of the qipao emerged. Like the Manchu gown, it was cut wide and straight, but it had also been modernised with the skirt shortened to the calf to reveal the ankles, and the sleeves shortened to elbow or wrist length. This style formed the prototype for the modern garment.
The qipao saw its heyday during the 1930s. Influenced by Westerners' appreciation of slenderness, the qipao became longer and slimmer, but were given higher slits to allow convenient movement. Fashionable women often wore their qipao with high heels to accentuate their slim figures, grace and femininity.
After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, very few women on the Mainland wore qipao, especially during the 1960s when manufactured garments in a wide array of styles became easily available at much cheaper prices than a tailor-made qipao.
While the garment fell from grace on the Mainland, it remained common attire for Chinese women in Hong Kong, until the late 60s. Most of the garments in this exhibition belong to this period, Ms Ang said, adding it has been a challenge to properly display the tiny dresses which can have waists as tight as 20 inches requiring specially-ordered mannequins.
There are more than 270 qipao of different styles and eras on display, along with 400 photos and nine multimedia programmes in the huge exhibition.
"If visitors only have time to view one qipao, I would recommend one from the 1920s. The original fabric was not large enough to make the whole garment. The tailor combined two pieces of fabric at the centre of the garment, however, the seam is almost unnoticeable due to his high skill," Ms Ang said.
Having survived the ever-changing currents of fashion, the qipao has provided long-lasting inspiration for designers and has been interpreted and re-presented by generations of creative talent.
Despite losing popularity in the 70s and 80s, compared to its 30s heyday, the recent reprisal of the qipao as a fashion icon will see the garment well worn as formal attire for generations to come.
Click here for exhibition details, or call 2724 9042 for enquiries.
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