The Poppy is one of the most widely used symbolic flower around the world. The blood red poppy flower is often (and rightly so) associated symbolically with a remembrance for those gone out of this life, especially those who gave the ultimate sacrifice during the First World War. However, the pure white form of the same poppy flower has a very lovely meaning in the Asian culture. Chinese flower experts recommend the Poppy for couples because it means a deep and passionate love between two people, but white Poppies are tied to death in those cultures, too. Even still, poppies are also seen as a cheerful plant to have in a garden due to its large size and available variety of cheerful colors. One flower can mean love, happiness, loss, sleep, or death all at the same time. It sounds like a summary of life.
Here is something symbolical, combined with a garment already so very symbolical – the qipao. This is a Mandarin-derived word for a one-piece garment for women which has evolved itself rapidly in the last 100 years, even surviving being outlawed (when communism rose in China circa 1949). Many fashion details have been added or taken off them, many fabrics from either end of the price rage have been used for them, and they have changed fit to suit each era and feminine ideal, but a qipao – a derivative of traditional menswear – has nevertheless persisted in being a statement for the freedom and knowledge available to the modern woman. Although it originated in Shanghai of the 1920s, it was emerged in full force circa 1950s in Hong Kong, after that, as that country was a British colony at that time, it became a strong part of Western Europe and American fashion through the 1960s. It is this tumultuous, transitional history that I would like to highlight and honor with my modern vintage Mandarin dress.
My coral pinkish-orange color is as bright as a cheerful paper lantern or the flashy electronic street advertisements of Hong Kong. My satin edging is as black as the poppy seeds which have caused so much fighting and human misery through the ages of the opium trade. The printed poppies, thanks to a full body lining, are as snowy as a classic bride’s dress. A qipao was deserves much more respect than to be whipped up without a thought behind the details. This one of mine strikes me as sending a bold, cheerful, yet peaceful message, faintly touched by sadness.
Now, I am by no means in any position to explain the qipao (sometimes informally called a cheongsam in Hong Kong). It is not my culture and there is so much symbolism, meaning, and national beauty to this garment that I could never know it all nor explain as well as others. Yet, I am wearing it not to ignorantly continue to Europeanize or secularize it, as was done especially in the 1950s, but to learn more of what I do not know, and interpret what I do know of the qipao in my own way to add to the respect of the garment. The more we know about others from around the world, the more I would expect it should bring a greater compassion and understanding of humanity (yet this is sadly not always the case). We are all going through life together be it our neighbor next door or one on the other side of the globe. Today more than ever – with all of our means of communication and social networks available – we are able to connect and learn about each other. Let us take advantage of that to be well-informed and thoughtful to others.
FABRIC: printed quilting cotton lined in solid white cotton broadcloth
PATTERN: Simplicity #8244, a re-issue of a year 1954 design originally Simplicity #1018
NOTIONS: I had to go out and buy the knot closures as I was finishing the dress, but everything else was on hand – interfacing, thread, zipper, and black satin binding – only because I have been wanting to make this dress for the last few years.
TIME TO COMPLETE: After about 10 to 15 hours, my qipao was finished on May 29, 2018
I have been wanting to make this for far too long, and it is a relief to be finally able to wear it. You see, for some reason, I had expected this to be difficult looking at the design. Perhaps it was the fact that the one shoulder where the neckline closes and opens is sewn on as a separate panel. Sometimes when you add pieces like that it’s easy to cut them out of the wrong side of the fabric or find it fiddly to match if the connecting points are not clearly marked on the pattern. However, it was much easier to make once I thought the construction out and just dove into it. The most time consuming parts are actually making all those fish eye darts that give this dress its amazing wiggle shape, and doing the hand stitching on the frog closures along the neckline. I guess making my own satin bias tape was a bit time consuming too, but I enjoy that step so much more than sewing darts or closures!
I found the sizing to be pretty good – maybe even a tad roomy. For my dress, I did go up a half size just in case it ran small. The finished garments measurements told me I probably would have been fine following the size chart to choose sizes. However, I figure it’s better to be safe than sorry because you can always take a dress in just a tad but when you need extra inches…that can be a problem. I get so used to working with true vintage patterns that I am actually unsure of the re-printed re-issues because you never really know how it’s been ‘modernized’. In the end, I left my dress a bit roomy because I don’t want the horizontal body wrinkles show up as the tell-tale sign when something is just too tight. I know this is a wiggle dress and all, but it still has such good shaping that it can be a comfy dress and still show off one’s silhouette!
There is one small tweak I did to the pattern to incredibly simplify the construction and save the print of the fabric. It makes all the difference in the world. I eliminated the full center back seam and cut the back on the fold instead. Yes, I did lose some of the curving and shaping to the dress, but that was remedied in another way. You see, to cut the center back on the fold, only the bottom half – from the high hips to the hem – was actually straight enough to line up. The waist and above curved in too much. Thus, my solution was to I mark the curving I was going to be missing with a disappearing ink pen and stitch in smaller that difference as a dart. This way there is a seam that only extends to the waist in the back, and the rest of the print is not disturbed. I find a small dart a lot less bulky than a full seam, and quicker to make anyway!
Other than this dramatic seam adaptation, there are several fine-tunings I made to end up with a dress I was finally happy with! As I fully lined my dress, I buried the interfacing in between the two fabric layers. As I was bias binding the edges, I left out the facings along the neckline and sleeve hems. I also left out the facings for the side slits to the skirt portion, and merely turned the edges under and stitched like a regular hem. The overall length ran long, and the pattern called for a wide hem, but I liked the elegance of the longer length so I did a tiny hem instead. The back bodice poofed out as if for a hunched back woman, so I trimmed the back neckline lower by 1 ½ inches to easily smooth the excess out. Other than these little modifications, I really did leave the general dress design as-is! I’m especially proud of the clean and hard-to-find hand-picked side zipper.
To complement my dress, I added some dangling hair flowers (which actually rather remind me of half of a pair of Hana kanzashi – sorry!), my summer fancy patent wedge heels, vintage gloves, my Grandma’s vintage drop pearl earrings, and a fun thrift store find of a handmade slatted wood purse. My lipstick is a classic Revlon color, true to the year 1953 called “Cherries in the Snow”. It seems that heels, a hair updo, and little white gloves are rather classic to wear with a 1950’s era qipao, so I suppose I am sticking with the safe and predictable outfit pairings here.
‘Classically’ paired together or not, this is still a standout dress, I think, and I rather like it like that…not to draw attention to me or my clothing, necessarily, but because a qipao to my understanding is a form of art, a message with fabric, a cultural beauty. This is what I miss the most about being an American – most other countries have a garment, a way with fabric, which offers a special cultural outlet for native personal expression. If I want to honor my country’s past by a garment, I tend to make historical clothes for attending a living history event or participating in a re-enactment. In other countries, there is a dirndl, a qipao, a kimono, a sari or a kurta, and an ushanka hat to name just a few of the most well-known examples of wearable culture. However, just wearing one of these items is not respect enough without awareness behind it. “Knowledge is power” is a phrase degraded because it is too often thrown out today, but when it comes to cultural garments, this is so very important. Is there a culture other than your own that you particularly appreciate and enjoy?