In the Mood for Qipao: How Shanghai Tang Modernized the Iconic Dress

The prestigious fashion label Shanghai Tang recently held a Christmas party in its flagship store in Hong Kong two weeks ago, gathering its biggest clientele: the Chinese and French elites. While browsing the brand’s latest collection of dresses – champagne glass in hand – I was mad about their striking and colourful designs, reminiscent of Mongolia’s traditional motifs. This made me think about how they upgraded iconic Chinese silhouettes, notably the qipao (or cheongsam in Cantonese), which is today’s most recognised Chinese dress style. Introduced during the Qing Dynasty, worn by Manchu women as a rather loose piece of clothing, it transformed in the 1920s to the figure-hugging dress we know today, with a few added tweaks from Western influences: it is shorter, more sensual, and with a rather daring split on the side. Still, the dress will always be associated with class and femininity.
In celebration of this season’s successful collection, I decided to list six ways in which Shanghai Tang revolutionized the qipao dress.


  1. Infusing Chinese symbolism with feminine characteristics

Shanghai Tang implements key Chinese cultural elements with empowering feminine symbolism to emphasize sensuality. Their cheongsams are often adorned with floral patterns such as peony flowers, which, according to their website, is “delicate yet complex and undeniably beautiful,” in addition to depicting wealth and nobility. The butterfly is another popular pattern embodying beauty and freedom. In terms of color, the brand employs black and white hues from the legendary dichotomy of “yin and yang,” exemplifying the soft and passive feminine yin and the aggressive yang in perfect harmony.

  1. Translating China’s rich landscape into textures and motifs

With China’s vast expanse, and diverse cultures and landscapes, Shanghai Tang strives to incorporate the country’s geographical and architectural beauty into colorful and delicate patterns for their dresses. From mountains, pine trees, and rice fields to monasteries and gardens, and even the Gobi Desert, the design choices are endless. The brand’s Autumn/Winter collection for 2016, designed by new Creative Director Raffaele Borriello, embodies the culture and vast highlands of Mongolia. The dark, bold blue and red colors, and the bohemian embroidered motifs and textures printed on the new qipaos are all representative of the land, aiming to accentuate freedom and confidence.

  1. Revitalizing a traditional dress with a contemporary, artistic twist

Shanghai Tang has collaborated with many artists and photographers to create cutting-edge and fashionable twists for their cheongsams. The implementation of young and innovative patterns into their dresses enlivens this traditional and symbolic dress style. One of their most popular artist partnerships was with contemporary artist Jacky Tsai, who created a series of six original patterns: lotus porcelain, ginger flower, flying tiger, petrol rainbow, floral play, and carved dragon. All the themes were inspired by nature, with rich colors reflecting the optimism of modern China.


Shanghai Tang Assouline Book Image 3.jpg

  1. Reinforcing Chinese heritage pride

The innovative designs and cuts of the dresses would not be the same without the integration of a cultural lexicon, from nostalgia to historical pride. The brand’s most popular significant icons include the dragon, the phoenix, and the tiger, which are all associated with power, protection, and good fortune. The design of the bamboo also impresses buyers with its color and silhouette. Another main motif is the Chinese knot, which symbolizes sophistication.

  1. Injecting new and distinctive materials

What makes Shanghai Tang’s cheongsam dresses so unique is the balance of Chinese culture and modern chic. While incorporating the Chinese symbols mentioned above, the dress still requires an extra “je ne sais quoi” to add to its distinctiveness. According to Raffaele Borriello, he injects materials which contrast with the delicate embroidered patterns to create a one-of-a-kind statement piece. This fashionable twist is achieved by adding pony skin, leather or even Swarovski crystals to the cheongsam style.

  1. Adding an element of surprise

According to Borriello, while taking aspects from Chinese culture, he enjoys eliminating their basic understanding and thinking about how he can elevate these ideas. By extracting the essence of such concepts, he strives to evolve the dress into “something that could even surprise Chinese people who are familiar with those cultural elements,” he explained in an interview.

You can find my original article here on Blouin Artinfo.


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