Ask the Yangxifu: Western Women Can’t Wear Qipaos?

Love Qipaos asks:

I have been taught Mandarin by a Chinese girl living abroad for a year now and sometimes she gives me some comments, that let me think. Mostly, this applies for clothes. I must say, my taste in clothes is not the average kind, and I especially like Asian style clothes, but the traditional kind. I own a qipao and also fisherman pants from Thailand, and when I wear those kind of clothes she asks me stuff like: “Why are you wearing this? You’re not Asian!” or she says “Nobody in China even wears this anymore!” I then ask her why she’s wearing blue jeans and western style clothes, when she is not from the west, but t seems like this doesn’t matter at all. I kinda get the feeling that when a western girl wears eastern clothes it gives off the impresion, that she’s trying to be Asian, but if it’s the other way around, no one seems to really care, even though all the Chinese girls that I know wear western clothes and some even dye their hair blond and such. So is this just the impression that I get or a general trend? Or is it just because there are so few western girls who are even interested in wearing traditional eastern clothes, that makes us stand out so much?

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Ever since China opened up in 1978, blue jeans and T-shirts slowly crept into closets all over the Middle Kingdom, and, now, have pretty much become the standard on the street. (Of course, this isn’t the first time Western fashion has come to China — even in the 19th century, Chinese started wearing Western suits and dresses.)

Why? Some might chalk it up to 崇洋媚外 (chóngyángmèiwài), or, essentially, worshiping all things foreign (as an example, read this article about the importing of foreign models). Some might say it’s simply the effect of globalization, where the world is getting smaller and becoming more homogeneous in fashion trends. In the case of dyeing hair blonde, some might argue it’s just about wanting to look different.

Whatever the reason, you only have to look at the windows of Metersbonwe, Giordano and Baleno (three popular fashion retailers in China) — and the bleached ‘dos all over China — to know these trends are here to stay.

That doesn’t mean Chinese have forsaken all of their traditional clothing. For example, Qipaos have enjoyed a resurgence in China ever since opening up. You see them on the hosts for the CCTV Chinese New Year special. At almost every wedding I’ve attended in China, the bride usually wears a qipao as one of her three wedding dresses. There’s even a Qipao club in Shanghai, and I’ve seen Chinese women dolled up in them on the streets from time to time. But the qipao is, for many Chinese, not something you’d pull out for just another ordinary day — and for some, even too much for the holidays:

Modern girls don’t find that many occasions to wear a qipao anymore; the outfit is usually reserved for weddings or major festival dinners, and even then, sometimes it comes across as too much. Liu Qiuyan decided to not wear qipao while visiting her family since she “got too much attention, since fewer people here wear Chinese style clothing, even during Chunjie, than before. I don’t want to stand out or look like I’m showing off, so no qipao for Chinese New Year’s Eve.” Zhang Xue, a student who studies in Tokyo, commented that wearing a qipao seems like something the older generation would do, and “as elegant and hot as a qipao is, not all women can pull the look off. It makes it less seen than the kimono in Japan.”

All that said, that’s too bad your friend thinks Western women can’t wear qipaos or other Asian clothing. Sure, I’ve read arguments about this before:

One Chinese person who does have a critical eye is Chu Hongsheng, 93, the number one qipao tailor in Shanghai. According to the entertainment section of 163.com, when Paris Hilton requested a qipao from Chu during her Shanghai visit, the tailor gave her the once-over and judged: “The girl has big bones, a slim waist but a small bottom. Hm, she’s not ready for a qipao yet.”

But who says Western women can’t rock a qipao — or something else Asian? For example, my Chinese husband and friends all love it when I wear Chinese dress such as as qipao, and I’m not alone:

In fact, most Chinese people seem to have a positive attitude to foreigners wearing Chinese-style clothing. “Seeing them wearing qipao or embroidered shirts makes us feel warm about them, since they must feel warm about Chinese culture. On that level, there’s no hot or not, always hot,” says Jian Dan, a student who studies cultural comparison.

If the clothing fits you, just wear it. Even if you’ve got on a qipao and it’s “just another ordinary day” (I say, the qipao makes any day extraordinary…;-))

Anyhow, the argument your friend makes — “You can’t wear this! You’re not Asian!” — is pretty ridiculous in the era of Shanghai Tang and Vivienne Tam, where Chinese clothing has become tres, tres chic in the international fashion world. That means plenty of women, Eastern and Western, go Asian when they get dressed up.

Maybe that will make your Chinese friend think twice about leaving that qipao behind.

What do you think?

UPDATE P.S.: Are you a Western woman with some great photos of yourself in a qipao? Show the world Western women can wear a qipao by uploading your photo at the Speaking of China facebook page — where you can also see mine. 😉

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27 thoughts on “Ask the Yangxifu: Western Women Can’t Wear Qipaos?

  • October 22, 2010 at 4:06 am
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    I am totally with you on this one! I would think that Chinese would be flattered that we adore their fashion so much that we want to try it out for ourselves. Fashion truly is global — plenty of Western designers have Asian-influenced lines, just as many Asian designers have foreign influences in some of theirs!
    I have two qipaos — one red and one black — bought in China and I absolutely love them (and of course I have intentions to eventually buy even more — green, blue, purple…!). I do feel that they are a bit fancy for normal occasions, so I reserve them for special occasions like Chinese New Year, the opera, etc., and tho I sometimes worry that Chinese girls might judge me for donning a qipao (and that my hips are far too big to actually look nice in one), I say seize the trend and if you love it, wear it!

    Reply
    • October 22, 2010 at 10:07 am
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      Thanks for sharing, Brittany! Good point about influences — Asian and Western — going global in the fashion world. It has been my experience that most Chinese are flattered we love their fashion.

      Reply
  • October 22, 2010 at 7:09 pm
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    Oh, don’t worry too much about the hips, because I’ve myself have been seeing quite a few big Chinese women wearing them as well. Plus, there are men out there that love that full figure.

    Reply
  • October 22, 2010 at 10:24 pm
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    I think western women can wear qipao, it is a freedom to do that. If you like it, you wear it, if you dont like it, just leave it there. But as a Chinese mam, i think no matter a western woman or a chinese woman, who wear a qipao, it often shows the elegance and beauty. I totally support western women wear qipao, when they wear it, sometimes, they look really different than chinese ladies.

    Reply
  • October 22, 2010 at 11:08 pm
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    I love Chinese/Asian fashion. Unfortuately, I can’t fit into most of their clothes (curse these curves)! When I visited a silk factory in China recently, I think I must have tried on the largest size there and it still didn’t fit properly! What a shame…

    If I could, I would certainly wear a qipao. I wouldn’t worry about what people think – just do what you feel comfortable with (and if it fits of course). =)

    Reply
  • October 22, 2010 at 11:27 pm
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    I only have one qipao, my wedding qipao. I do like qipao, but my everyday style is more casual and qipao aren’t really practical with 2 kids underfoot!

    I do have some traditionally Asian/Chinese clothing that I wear regularly though, like my Dai minority wrap skirts. I have 3 of them and wear them all the time. I get reactions from students in Beijing sometimes who think it is weird to see those fashions outside of a Yunnanese restaraunt, but actual Dai women wear them everyday, they’re beautiful and comfortable, so who cares what my students think. They, quite frankly, turn their noses up at clothing unless the label is foreign or the pricetag is in the triple digits so I don’t really expect most of them to be too impressed by traditional clothes.

    I do somewhat get the argument about Westerners co-opting Eastern styles, and the concern that there are hints of Orientalism in the likes of Paris Hilton wanting to rock an “exotic” qipao, but I don’t think that most of the reactions from Chinese people (in China) to Western women wearing qipao really run that deep. I think they are mostly surprised you’d want to wear something old fashioned and they may find the sight of a Western woman in a qipao a bit incongruous, but I don’t think they’re sitting their thinking “damn cultural imperialists, isn’t it enough that they’ve got everyone here wishing they were blonde, now they have to take over our own fashions too?! Is nothing sacred?!” Unless maybe you run in certain academic circles. 😉

    If you like qipaos or fisherman pants or wrap skirts or embroidered shirts, then wear them. If anyone says anything just tell them the truth, that you find Asian style beautiful and elegant and you don’t see what’s so great about blue jeans anyhow.

    Reply
  • October 23, 2010 at 5:49 am
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    I am originally from the Philippines, but grew up in the US. Unfortunately I haven’t been thin since I was about 10 years old. The women in my family aren’t very slim either. When I see the thin Chinese girls, I realize that we (my relatives and I) have never been/can never be that thin. When I visited China and tried on the traditional clothes, they were too small for me! So I ended up not buying anything. I think Chinese women have the “skinny genes” and most Filipinas don’t!

    Reply
  • October 23, 2010 at 7:39 am
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    Aw, thanks, this all is really reassuring. Maybe I’ve just come in contact with the wrong people so far, but the reactions I got in the past for me wearing eastern clothes were mostly negative. In a forum for Asian guys and non-asian girls, one Chinese guy even went on a total rage trip against western girls wearing traditional Chinese clothes, saying, that they are too curvy for it and their skin type doesn’t suit them and such. But if guys like that really are the minority, I’m relieved. I guess such personal opinions shouldn’t really bother me, when I really want to wear what I like.
    Like Yasmin, I’m also curvy though, that makes it hard for me to find Asian style clothes, that really fit me. But with enough patience in the search, I’ve always been able to find something good so far. My qipao is purple and looks really beautiful to me, but unfortunately I have no picture of it. 🙁

    Reply
  • October 23, 2010 at 7:46 pm
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    Frankly whenever I see women slopping around town wearing some “traditional asian clothing” it just makes me sad. Too often it is one of those weebo girls who are BEYOND creepily obsessed with Asian pop culture, wearing something horribly cheap-looking they found on a table in Chinatown.
    If a woman wants to wear beautiful traditional clothing, it needs to be done properly no matter what her race or body type. Those outfits (usually) are for special occasions, not doing errands or going to school.

    Reply
  • October 23, 2010 at 8:40 pm
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    First of all, qipaos are NOT traditional Chinese dresses. They are modern dresses derived from Manchurian clothing. The truly traditional clothing worn by Han Chinese is the hanfu, which was worn for thousands of years preceding the Manchu Qing dynasty. The hanfu is suitable for all figure types and is graceful, elegant and classical in appearance and visual appeal. Hopefully, the groups of Chinese who are trying to revive the hanfu will succeed in their endeavors.

    Reply
  • October 26, 2010 at 10:04 am
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    If you like it the hell with what others think. Just like previous posters stated that Chinese people do have a lot of respect foreigners who show interest in thier culture.

    Reply
  • Pingback:Western and Chinese Celebrities in Qipao. Who Is Better? | LoveLoveChina

  • January 21, 2011 at 11:19 am
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    This is very reassuring, I’ve been looking at a qipao as a prom dress but I hesitated because my area of the world has a steadily growing Chinese population and I didn’t want to offend anyone. Good to know they won’t totally flip out.

    RE hanfu: Hanfu are incredibly gorgeous, I agree, I’ve always thought they looked brilliant, I may hunt around for one instead of a qipao, depends on funds and prices.

    Reply
  • January 21, 2011 at 12:57 pm
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    Jakvn Gvsa aibide bini?
    Qipao might not be “traditional” in the strictest sense, it’s nevertheless definitively Chinese in origin.

    Reply
  • March 31, 2015 at 4:34 am
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    Thanks so much for this!
    I have just bought a qipao style dress for my Leaver’s Ball in June but was suddenly terrified of offending people. I love Asian culture and history (although I am no expert) and I really loved that style of dress.

    I really hope I won’t be accused of cultural appropriation, I think I would die of shame.

    Reply
  • August 26, 2015 at 4:14 am
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    Uh, as an american born chinese, I completely see this as white cultural appropriation. Its cool to see folks incorporate asian influences into their attire, but to wear something completely chinese is a bit much for me.

    I see it as another micro aggression. here we go again with white people stepping into other people’s culture whenever they please, when ever its cool or hip, and then they can step back into their dominant white culture, again whenever they please. I can’t stop being culturally chinese. I can’t choose to just be white. Despite being born in america, i can choose tap into my american culture and later tap into my chinese culture. but here in the states, there is a stark difference between being american and white.

    perhaps this article on dreadlocks can shed a little more light:
    http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/08/white-feminist-with-dreadlocks/

    thanks

    Reply
    • August 28, 2015 at 3:17 pm
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      Thanks for the comment Jean. I can understand your concerns, given instances like Katy Perry’s “yellowface” performance in 2013. In retrospect, I should have added something additional to clarify what I’ve said. I think this post from Walking in May offers some good advice in this regard:

      I feel the difference between the offensive and non-offensive is crucially ‘how one wears the traditional dress’, so here’s a few ideas to consider:

      Research that dress! If you would like to wear a Qipao (Cheongsam) respectfully, then do a little research into what looks nice with it and know the name of what it is that you will be wearing. It is probably best not to mix a widely perceived Chinese dress with items from other Asian cultures, to avoid making broad statements about all Asian cultures, or indeed dig out the political through a historical war context that could simmer a stereotypical grudge of some sort. If in doubt, keep it simple.

      Mere fun-filled costume or true loving appreciation? Your intention matters, and how you choose to wear a traditional garment will allow others to decipher information about you as well as how you feel about the garment. If you love something, then you will simply want to do it justice and appreciated it in the best way that you can.

      Reply
    • January 24, 2017 at 1:25 pm
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      It’s too bad you feel that way. As a 61 year old American female I have watched many styles come and go. Trends. Fashion. I can remember having a very nice (and expensive) shirt from India and also qipao style shirt when I was very young. I do not keep up with the trends, I never was much with that but I have always worn what I liked to wear. What I thought was pretty. Is there something wrong with that?
      I serve the Chinese community in my American town. I have helped with English as a Second Language classes at the Chinese church and I participate in the Chinese New Year festival and THEY WANT ME TO wear traditional Chinese clothing when I sing and play my guitar. I think it’s a little racist to think that I am trying to be Chinese or that I am ?stepping on other people’s culture?. I love the Chinese community here and am happy to be a part.
      By the way, I find it offensive that you call some people “white”. A piece of paper is white. People are shades of tan, to brown to black. And I bed that you are actually “whiter” than me. There is only one race – human. These so-called races are actually family groups.

      Reply
  • January 11, 2016 at 12:26 am
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    I think that it’s nice to know that western women appreciate the eastern culture, and personally, I think it’s fine for a woman of any nationality to wear a qipao. Just please avoid the mix and match of all the asian countries, because that will just be viewed as racist.

    Reply
    • January 11, 2016 at 11:28 am
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      Yi, thank you so much for the comment. Yes, I agree — you absolutely should not mix/match clothing from different Asian countries.

      Reply
  • June 9, 2016 at 8:29 pm
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    What can I say? i agree with: ‘you like it? Wear it!’
    Apparently, some 3 years back, the traditional romanian blouse for women (ukraine and russia has similar ones) started to be worn by women here.. last year this type of blouse made its way onto the best known fashion shows, under well known designer names.
    The summer didn’t fully start [the spring was incredibly cold and rainy], but women are already wearing them.
    The problem? nobody wears the whole traditional outfit … not on a daily basis, with a few tiny exceptions. should American or Asian women be banned from wearing these blouses? No.. if anything, they might be curious about the inspiration and learn more about the East European culture.. and that’s a good thing.

    Reply
  • October 14, 2016 at 4:48 pm
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    Qipao is over-rated.. Hanfu is more elegant and beautiful..
    I like to see white women wearing Hanfu… and I’m asian..

    Reply
  • July 13, 2017 at 9:51 am
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    I totally agree! Western women can often rock Asian clothes better than Asian women because they have taller and prettier bodies. If Asian clothes were designed to fit Western women, they’d definitely be more popular. Plus when you mix Asian clothing with Western features, the overall look is far more stunning and delicate! Trust me, as a fashion lover, Western women were made to rule Asian culture!

    Reply
    • July 13, 2017 at 11:58 am
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      Jessica, I would never suggest that Western women could look better in Asian clothing than Asian women — and that’s not at all the point of this piece. I was merely saying that Western women could wear qipaos, not that they’re somehow inherently superior to Asian women.

      Reply
  • February 4, 2018 at 4:49 pm
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    Thanks so much for this piece! My step sad and his side of the family are of Eastern descent and I’ve had this burning question in my mind on whether it was offensive for someone NOT of his descent to wear such things. My Little sister is a mix of my step dad and mom (mom being white) and my step dad wants to take us all to China one day to show us his culture.

    It honestly would be such an honor for me to wear the sorts of things you mentioned and a truly heart-warming experience for me as it’s very close to my heart. This culture is part of my family and I’m not here to shun or disrespect it, I’m here to embrace it and love it to bits. I find the traditional clothing absolutely gorgeous.

    Reply
    • February 5, 2018 at 5:51 pm
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      Thank you for the comment, Kennedy. It sounds like you have great respect for the culture and will honor it when you wear the traditional clothing.

      Reply

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