Qipao Love: Part 5 ~ How-To choose and wear a Qipao (Cheongsam) that will love your frame!

Accompanying book for 'In the Mood for Cheongsam' exhibition in  Singapore.
Source: www.amazon.co.uk/In-Mood-Cheongsam-History 
A little warning is probably in order my darlings...as this will be a rather comprehensive How-To Qipao post! I will try to incorporate my own knowledge as well as what I researched through time, to create a rough but helpful guide for ladies who might want to attempt wearing the Qipao! Why do I say attempt? In today's fast paced life the Qipao has become a rather occasional dress even for a faithful admirer like me and I can understand why it might not be the most popular attire in the world, but I also know that many ladies who admire the Qipao might resist the idea of wearing it because of different barriers. Being a lover of the Qipao myself...trust me I know the fearful qualms and muffin top resistance to wearing a Qipao all too well.....whether it is a matter of figure, budget, impression, style, occasion, look or finding the excuse to wear a Qipao, I hope to be able to offer some help towards a solution and ask that you forgive me if I am too long winded. The Qipao really is not a dress to be feared but rather a dress to be loved...as in her very true essence; she is a form of wrapped nudity that is all about you. So without a further ado, I present you with my inadequate rough guide!

Follow your body shape...
Finding and wearing a Qipao can be a tricky matter (unless tailor or custom made) because Qipao sizes are very different from Western standard sizes and it almost is a matter of genetics in some ways.....being of Chinese heritage myself and having spent a few years of my childhood in Asia, I do believe the majority of body frames are genetically different because of one's inherited heritage...and the recent craze in wanting to become size-less-ly stick thin in Asia doesn't really help. Being 5 foot 5" (165cms) I am probably in the average category of not being petite enough and not being tall enough either, but I was often told that I am tall for an Asian girl and can barely fit into an Asian size M.....proportions and chest size is probably another bare difference as many females of Chinese heritage like myself tend to have more boyish figures with smaller chest size and not much of a hip. So whilst we are talking figures and if we were being strictly critical, I would be a big boned or average framed girl with no chest and hips to brag about.....which is also why the properly fitted Qipao can work wonders to give me a feminine waist and the sensuous illusion of curves as well as legs!

Most mass manufactured ready made Qipao dresses from China have their own sizing labels which usually follows the measurements of the chest, for example as a rough little size guide (note: size accuracy depends on the manufacturer):
Chinese Size Label
Bust or Chest
To Fit UK Size
(Size 32) Small
UK 6
(Size 34) Medium
UK 8
(Size 36) Large
UK 10
(Size 38) Extra Large
UK 12
(Size 40) XXL
UK 14

The Qipao is often made from materials that are textured or thicker than most fabric and without any stretch or give at all such as brocade, so at least an inch or two of space between the wearer and the garment is necessary to allow for undergarments, curves and freedom of movement. This is why a Chinese Qipao Size 32 would not fit a UK Size 8 with a 32 bra size, and also why the Qipao often looks formlessly bigger than it should when hanging off a non-dimensional or flat hanger, so it is best to get a Qipao tailored or custom made if possible. Another solution if you want to buy a ready made Qipao and make it look fitted (which is what I often do), is to get the bigger size and take it in around the midsection to create a closer fit to your body (I shall explain how to do this below).....for example I am about a UK Size 10 so I would choose the large Size 36 and alter it myself at the midsection to create the fitted figure hugging look and bring out a waistline.  

A brief label of the different parts to a Qipao...from one of my embroidered Qipao!
(Link to see more of this dress: walkinginmay.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/london-hot-spot-ballgowns)

Know what you like!
How your dress will look of course depends on what style you want, as you may just as well want a looser fit or the original pre-1920s look, in which case you won't need to alter it. There are also other factors which can help you create or affect the look you want:

  • The Material - The chosen material for a Qipao can reveal clues about the life, style preference and cultural heritage of the wearer, which is why the Qipao can be more than just the seen exterior dress and often thought to reflect the internal beauty of the woman wearing it. From brocade, silk, satin, linen, cotton, velvet, rayon, chiffon to the rarer wool, French lace and South East Asian batik fabric. [To find out more about Batik fabric, please click here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batik] The fabric's pattern, shine, texture and size as well as direction of print can draw attention to certain parts of your body or even make you appear slightly larger or shorter than you really are. For example those with slim boyish frames can use brocade to create dimension through the shine of the fabric and bring about the illusion of curves, or those with a curvier figure can use small vertical facing prints to create longer lines to the body and appear a little slimmer. Though illusions can be useful, it is important to remember that the post-1920s Qipao is really about celebrating the beauty of the female form and admiring her sensuous feminine frame. 
  • The cut and fit - The slit height and waist line through the waist darts or midsection seams might be something else to consider...also whether you want a full ankle, mid calf, knee or mini length Qipao? As the hemline and slits can draw attention to the respective part of your frame.
  • Quality - A well made and high quality Qipao will have tidy demure side slits, that should not fall awkwardly in a gaping and widely forked outwards fashion. Also the mandarin collar should be tidy, symmetrical and without awkward gaps (unless it is meant to be an open collar). It may or may not have embroidery, patterns, frogged knotted buttons, single or double piping depending of the style, material and design of the Qipao, but the details should be done to a good standard. 
  • The occasion - If you are attending a Chinese wedding as a guest then you would want to avoid a red Qipao as it is traditional for a bride to wear red on her wedding day because of the celebratory nature of the colour. Alternatively, if you want an easy care and versatile Qipao you might want to consider the cotton or linen variety.
  • The style details - Other things to consider could be whether you want a high or low mandarin collar, modern V or U shaped collar, side opening or back zip, frogged buttons of simple knots or more sophisticated designs such as chrysanthemum, blossom, phoenix, dragonfly and longevity clasps? There are actually almost 100 different frogged button designs, each with a different symbolic meaning, and more complicated clasp designs can take at least 2 days to make by hand. A higher closed mandarin collar with three simple knotted buttons is a classic that can bring out the slenderness of a silhouette for ladies with a longer neck and is best in a long or ankle length Qipao. Alternatively a higher opened mandarin collar without any frogged buttons can look more modern or youthful with a shorter length Qipao. 
My high opened mandarin collared Qipao...in midi or knee length for my Shanghai Girl look!
(Link to post and photos:  walkinginmay.com/2012/02/looks-shanghai-shanghai)

Where to hunt?
EBay is actually a great place to find your first Qipao or even to add to your collection because there is a wealth of pre-loved, handmade, custom made, tailor-made and vintage as well as more modern styled and newly ready made Qipao dresses to choose from. In the run-up to the time when I add to my Qipao collection every year, I would often run a few simple searches with keywords such as Chinese dress, Qipao or Cheongsam on Ebay to see what is available or if there are any bargains to be caught, and study the details to see if it is a fitting piece to add to my wardrobe.

In recent years there has also been a new trend of buying clothing through social media platforms such as Facebook or online blog shops, where Qipao dresses can also be found nearer to the festivities of Chinese New Year, and some online shops even specialise in selling certain types or custom made Qipao. As with most purchases online, caution should be exercised through checking customer reviews, shipping details and secure checkout transactions to ensure it is a reputable seller. This year is the first I have tried a blog shop with a Facebook page to purchase a specialised Malaysian Batik fabric Qipao, and though there was more communication with the seller than clicking a simple buy button, the beauty of this regional piece has made the efforts worthwhile! (The photo below offers a little glimpse of the lovely Batik print design.)

How to get more wear from the Qipao?
One of the things to remember is that the Qipao was once a dress used for daily wear and usually made for a purpose. So the question is.....what would you like your Qipao to serve as? Is it just for one special occasion as a wedding dress, a statement piece for fabulous parties or for more versatile purpose of incorporating the Qipao into your daily wardrobe? The cotton or linen variety are fabrics that can endure the gentler washing machine cycle, will be more suited to daily use as it was once used for that purpose, and those with floral vintage prints will likely have the pretty factor rather than the outlandish costume party look. The brocade and shiny satin variety is more eye catching and usually seen at parties or special occasions, but can be toned down with a cardigan, neutral coloured and limited number of accessories to achieve a rather chic look. The velvet, fur trimmed and lightly padded variety are more suited for colder weather and usually worn in winter.

Colour can also be an important factor and often many would seek refuge in the black Qipao to be safe, but it could really be a matter of finding a colour that compliments your complexion. I often think it is a pity to not consider other lovely hues of blue, green or even gold when the Qipao has the ability to be a statement piece of art at almost any occasion. In the famous film of 'In The Mood For Love' leading actress Maggie Cheung wore a total of 23 beautiful Shanghai tailored Qipao dresses, with a variation of colour as well as prints, to bring the audience through the changing mood in the film, but it also demonstrated a time in Hong Kong when the Qipao was used as a versatile garment in daily life and considered the fashion statement of the 1950s to 1960s.
Maggie Cheung in a high collared Qipao of the cotton or linen variety [In the Mood for Love]

How to make it fit?
Taking a loosely fitted or larger sized Qipao in at the waist through the two front seams and the two back seams (waist darts) can be done by hand with a little planning and patience. In a hope of showing you how I altered the waist to make it more fitted, I have taken a photo of one of the new Qipao dresses I have been working on...please do forgive and overlook my ugly hand stitches but it really is quite straight forward!

1) I tried on the dress to see how much I wanted to alter by measuring with a measuring tape and decided how much each waist dart or seam needs to be taken in.
2) From the inside (or under-side of fabric), I used some pins to mark where I wanted to sew in a rather curved (half-moon like) line.
3) With a needle and thread I stitched following the outline marked by pins.
4) Move on to the next seam or waist dart to repeat steps 2 and 3.

Depending on the fabric, you may have to try the dress on several times for an accurate fit, or take in the waist from the side seam instead (if the print or embroidery in the front of the dress does not accommodate waist darts) and might have to unpick to restitch the waist dart or seam until the right fit is achieved.  If you are taking in the seams of a silk brocade or satin Qipao, you might have to take more care as the fabric can easily snag, pull or be moved out of shape whilst stitching and mistakes could be easier to spot by nature of the fabric or how the patterns flows.
How I altered my new Batik fabric Qipao by hand with the help of some pins....please forgive the ugly stitches! (Waist dart or midsection of the dress from the inside)

How to care for your Qipao?
One of the challenges of wearing and keeping a Qipao will likely be the maintenance and care...how to clean a silk or brocade Qipao without losing its shine, colour and tightly weaved structure?
[An interesting article I found about the origins of Chinese silk: www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/arts/silk]
Most clothing labels tend to advice on dry cleaning silk items, but as it can become expensive and is not ideal for the environment...I tend to gently handwash my silk brocade Qipao dresses in cold water and diluted or mild detergent. Remembering not to rub or knead, I usually gently swirl my brocade or silk Qipao in a bucket of cold water (with diluted detergent) and soak for 5 minutes, before putting it in a bucket of cold water (with a small amount of vinegar) to rinse out the detergent, and then a second rinse in a plain cold water. Folding the garment in 3 or 4 folds, I try to press out as much water as possible before folding it between a towel for the last press, and then hang on a hanger to dry in the bathroom (indoors as some silks may fade under the sun). Ironing can be done on the lowest setting with a towel to protect the garment. Of course how the garment washes depends on the fabric or material and you might prefer a different cleaning method to what I usually do...also you might find the video and article links below useful:

Hopefully this post has been useful in helping you choose, wear and care for your very own Qipao or Cheongsam...especially when Chinese New Year is only a little less than two weeks away! There will be more posts to come in the 'Qipao Love' series; from a glamorous Hollywood siren to my next vintage inspired Qipao look! Have a fabulous mid-week my lovely darlings!

Until the next time,
May xx

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PS: Useful articles that might offer more insight on washing silk or brocades:
Also...for more posts on the 'Qipao Love' series, please click on the link: www.walkinginmay.com/label/Qipao-Love-All-about-Qipao
The gold brocade in Part 3 of  'Qipao Love'....my 1920s inspired Cheongsam look!
(Link: www.walkinginmay.com/2013/01/looks-qipao-love-part-3my-1920s)


  1. Good job, May! Although I won't be donning a qipao in this life at least, I found your guide a very interesting read.

    BTW, I finally got a copy of the In the Mood for Cheongsam book. It took Amazon more than two months to source it! It's a beautiful book and I highly recommend you get before it becomes hard to find. What's especially cool about the book is that there are lots of photos of regular women and not just movie stars. There are plenty of examples showing that the qipao isn't just made for thin bodies. I like what you said about the qipao as a form of wrapped nudity. Of course, it should be properly fitted, but just as important is to wear it with confidence.


    1. Thank you Dave! Glad you enjoyed the post and found it interesting too! Must order that book soon before it disappears...I can imagine there will be interesting regional details to learn about the Qipao in it. Hope you had a great start to the year!

  2. I actually enjoyed the video how to wash silk. Its just waste of money goin to the dry cleaning laundry. This is definitely more economical. I do not have qipaos like those beautiful ones u own. But i sure have some silk clothing that i can try out this method. Thanks for sharing on the insights of qipaos. I learn so much today. :)

    I have just created a facebook page. Hope you can show some support & make my day! :)

    1. Thank you my dear and glad you found the post useful! You are so sweet! :) Liked your page on Facebook too! Hope you are having a fabulous start to the year and a great weekend!
      May xx

  3. since ages i adore qipaos, so i´m very grateful for that very well done and helpful post to find the right one. so you really inspired me for a new DIY project;)

    1. Thank you very much my dear and I am glad you liked the post! :) Hope to see you in a Qipao and I can't wait to see your DIY project too...sounds so exciting!
      May xx

  4. What an incredibly thorough, insightful, informative post, dear May. I truly learned a lot here and honestly feel more confident about one day buying my first qipao (I don't have the best figure for this style, so your tips are especially helpful to me).

    ♥ Jessica

    1. Thank you my dear and glad to be of help! Was worried that the post might be too long winded...so I am glad you liked it! I am also sure you will look fabulous in a Qipao once you find the right one! happy Sunday!
      May xx

  5. Hi May,

    I am looking to buy my first qipao online ever, and stumbled upon this post - it's helped me so much, especially the bits about the fitting & where to buy. Thank you so much! I will be reading the other posts in your series for more information.

    - Julie

    1. Glad you found this post helpful and thank you so much for reading! I hope you will find the perfect Qipao!
      May x

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Thank you for stopping by and reading! I think it will be a matter of personal preference...depending on what type of wedding it is and location....also of course what you are most comfortable with. But it is definitely not unusual to see someone wearing a Qipao to attend a wedding, as long as it is not white or red. Hope that helps and have a lovely week!

  7. Hello May,
    I just wanted to let you know how wonderful this article (and who blog) is! I've had one qipao for my elementary school graduation and it never really fit right and I didn't know how to shop for one to begin with back then. Neither did my mother, who is white (I'm a halfer), and I didn't have any one else to ask for help. Now that I'm older I was looking to buy one online and this has helped me so much (especially the part about the colours).
    I wish you well in your blogging endeavors,

    1. Thank you so much for leaving such a lovely comment Kat! I am really happy to hear you found this post useful....it has brightened up my day. Hope it will help you find the perfect Qipao!
      May x

  8. Hi, May! Thank you so much for these pointers! Awww you have very beautiful choices of qi pao. I'm in the midst of shopping online for knee-length qi pao and I'm really loving a dragon and phoenix theme. Do you know if there is an appropriate time to wear qipao with the dragon and phoenix? I've read around they are a pattern for weddings. I'm not going to be a bride when I wear it. he he Thank you so much.


    1. Hello Jenine,
      Thank you for the lovely comment and I am glad you found the post helpful! The dragon and phoenix symbol...especially when embroidered....can be stunning! They have been mostly used for ceremonial wear or wedding Qipao because when the dragon (male) and phoenix (female) are depicted together it means ultimate harmony....symbolically like a king and a queen....so therefore they are seen as matrimonial bliss. An idea might to avoid red, as that is the celebratory wedding colour....also maybe you can wear them separately. I do have one Qipao with some dragon patterned trim and have been thinking of getting a Qipao with a phoenix alone. As long as you don't wear a red Qipao with a phoenix or both symbols to a wedding, I think it should be ok. Of course it is suited to most parties too! Hope that helps.
      May x

  9. You are so professional at qipao/cheongsam, although i am qipao editor and fan, i am not really familiar with such details. this article tought me lots. thanks. by the way, i am qipao editor for elegantstory.com and also paid editor for #1 tailor made cheongsam brand ELEGENTE.com, if you are interesting to be their qipao editor. you can contact robes@elegente.com

  10. Hi May, thanks for the nice article. I'm thinking of buying a Qipao for my Chinese wife, but she is quite disparaging. She says the quality of the Qipaos available online is almost always worse than the pictures suggest. Have you ever ordered one from modernqipao.com? They have a nice selection. Then there's taobao.com, which is cheaper but even harder to discern what's good quality. I want to get her a nice silk Qipao, probably medium size, which we will get tailored to her measurements here. What kind of price should I expect to pay for that?

    1. Thank you for the comment Matt. Hope your search has been fruitful so far! It really depends on what you are looking for and your budget. Also different retailers in different countries as well as different quality of silk (in terms of silk percentage or make and weave) will have different prices, so it is hard to put a generic price. But it might be unlikely to get a good quality silk Qipao below £50, so probably something above that. Also I have not tried modernqipao.com or taobao, so cannot offer any thoughts on them. Hope that helps!

  11. Nice blog. I took notice of the cheongsam after I saw "In The Mood For Love," especially how it informed Maggie Cheung's body language in the film and how WKW used it to indicate a passing of time. Been intrigued with them since. Stumbled upon your blog and enjoyed the entries I read. Thanks for sharing.


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With Loving Kindness,
♥ May xx
E: walkingdivinelyinmay[at]gmail[dot]com