The Shanghai Qi Pao Club

Travel Stories: They gathered to celebrate the sexy, figure-hugging traditional Chinese dress. Kellie Schmitt joined them for a journey into the country's past -- and future.

08.06.09 | 2:36 PM ET

Photo by Kellie Schmitt

It had all the markings of a strip show: a room full of ladies shrugging off long overcoats to reveal tight dresses with dangerously high slits. Sparkling silver high heels peeked out from under their hemlines as they mingled.

But this was a gathering of grandmas in a government building, not a seedy strip club. In a gray, boxy auditorium on the outskirts of Shanghai, nearly 100 women gathered to celebrate the qi pao, the sexy, figure-hugging traditional Chinese dress. And there I was, in the fifth row, the lone blond ponytail amid a sea of black tresses.

I was sitting next to Rachel, my husband’s Chinese coworker, who knew about my own red qi pao and invited me to join the club. Rachel had enthusiastically welcomed my attendance, calling and texting me frequently to make sure I’d come. It made me wonder if she felt sorry for me as a lonely foreigner without a steady job. More likely, as a divorcee with a grown daughter, she was excited to focus on something other than her nursing job, and wanted to recruit friends to share in her new hobby.

Qi paos gained popularity in the roaring ’20s when Shanghai was the epicenter of fashion, foreigners and, of course, opium. In this bourgeois era, the traditional Chinese loose fitting dress shifted to a body-hugging, high-collar style designed to accentuate women’s curves and femininity, the mark of a high society glamour gal. But when the Communists took over, the fashion quickly lost favor and a uniform of drab trousers and jackets replaced the dazzling frivolity.

Now, these aging beauties were trying to recapture a piece of that lost era—and the elegance that came with it.

The dresses came in every shade, from lime green to cotton candy pink, their bright hues pinpricks of color in the dreary auditorium. Some were silk with flowers running down the sides, petals thick with paintbrush strokes. Others were heavy velvet with intricate embroidery. There was a black and hot pink one with a zigzagged geometric pattern mimicking the lines of the Beijing Olympics stadium, the Bird’s Nest.

The women, for the most part, were slender, a shape aided by impeccably upright posture that kept the dresses taut along their mid lines. Black hair with threads of silver was swept up in buns so precise I suspected they were either professionally done or fake.

Amid the black-tie gowns, I looked down at my jeans sheepishly. I had brought my red qi pao in a bag because it was cold outside, and besides, I wasn’t sure it was all that flattering.

“Next time, you need to wear the qi pao,” Rachel said. “The jeans don’t look so good.” Her disdainful glance at my sneakers made it clear those didn’t even warrant a comment.

I had agreed to Rachel’s invitation mostly out of curiosity. I was intrigued by these women who donned their gowns and strutted through the streets of Shanghai together. A bevy of bejeweled seniors, sparkling in their floor length gowns against a big city backdrop—it seemed a photo opportunity, if nothing else. But this meeting was starting to seem like etiquette school for the elderly, not a high-fashion photo op.

Under fluorescent lights, the laoshi, or teacher, listed examples of rude behaviors Chinese often engaged in, admonishing their misdeeds.

Once, she said, a friend was walking through a five-star hotel and overheard a Western tourist complaining to his friends. A Chinese man had been talking obnoxiously loud on his cell phone, distracting everyone in the lobby. The Westerner then launched into a tirade about the Chinese and how they needed to learn some manners.

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Kellie Schmitt lived in China for two years, where she was a frequent contributor to CNNgo. Her work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Afar Magazine and The Economist's Business China. She currently lives in Los Angeles, where she's working on a book about life in China.

7 Comments for The Shanghai Qi Pao Club

Amy 08.07.09 | 1:04 PM ET

“It had all the markings of a strip show” ?

Except that it’s a room full of women, not men.

Randolph Driblette 08.08.09 | 3:09 PM ET

I luv this part about old women who just want to slurp some noodles and spit a little. Makes me want to visit China now before it changes too much,

kalista 08.09.09 | 9:34 PM ET

“100 women gathered to celebrate the qi pao, the sexy, figure-hugging traditional Chinese dress”, nice quote, the strong institutionalization of the family in traditional Chinese would seem to have made familism even more central in that society than in most.

Vicki Jacob 08.10.09 | 6:37 PM ET

When does the Wild China specials come on again?

Vicki Jacob 08.10.09 | 6:39 PM ET

When are the Wild China specials due to come on the Travel Channel again?

kira 09.12.09 | 11:05 PM ET

Since Qipaos emphasize curves and thighs, and must be worn with high heels, they only look good on those with flawless figures and long slim legs.  The average women would look dumpy in a qipao, which has too short a history to be considered traditional.

I think these ladies should revive the beautiful hanfu, which was worn for thousands of years before the Manchus conquered China.  A woman of any shape would look dignified in a hanfu.

Carlos 02.10.10 | 8:10 AM ET

Given that is a fad of the 30s, and mostly the members are elderly, frankly it was common to find older people. However, it must be nice to see these women dressed in their Qi Pao. It is still somewhat traditional in Shanghai.

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