A qipao, or Mandarin gown, is a one-piece fitted dress traditionally worn by upper class and wealthy Chinese women. Also referred to as a cheongsam in Southern China, the qipao gives the appearance of a long, flowing shirt-dress. Having evolved in design over the centuries, it was once a simple dress that is now a highly stylized ornamental gown worn for dress occasions or as a costume.
Originally, the dress was a loose fitting garment, and was intended for the purpose of concealing the wearer's figure. First worn by nobility, the qipao in its original form had a high, close fitting collar, so that only the head and face of the wearer were visible; the sleeves and length were long as well, so that only the tips of the fingers and toes could be seen. These old style dresses were made of silk and were adorned simply at the collar, sleeves, and the hem with lace or trim.
The modern qipao is quite different from the original, in that it is now a fitted and figure-flattering garment. It has a defined mandarin collar, usually ranging in height from 2 to 3 inches (5.08 to 7.62 cm). The edges of the collar are slightly rounded, and meet at the front of the neck with a slight "V" opening. The higher collar is tight fitting and designed to enhance the neck of the woman wearing it, making her neck appear more slender and long.
While effecting a look of modesty, the nature of the item of today not only enhances the figure but suggestively shows it off. The sleeves of the modern garment range in length, with some having a short, fitted cap-type sleeve, and others reaching all the way to the wrist. The dress often will have high side slits, intended to give a brief but discreet glimpse of a woman's legs as she walks.
Just as in the past, the qipao is never intended to be accessorized; as such, a belt or scarf should not be worn with it. It is meant to be an elegant dress, accessorized in an understated fashion. Most often, the only accessories worn with it are earrings and/or a bracelet. Today, the Qipao is sometimes worn over a fitted pair of silk or satin pants. While the Qipao has evolved over the centuries in its design, its distinct element of simple elegance, however, has never changed.