Tailors, Qí Páo & Silks… Oh My!

Given the haul I collected on my trip to the Hongqiao pearl market, you may be surprised to learn that my main Chinese vice is not pearls (though probably only because I’m not living in Beijing). In fact, custom tailoring snags that title–as my poor, bursting-at-the-seams closet can attest.

It isn’t that I’ve never spent time with a tailor before. As someone whose height tops out at 5 foot-nothing, I’ve paid my fair share of visits to have pants, dresses, and blazers nipped up along hem, sleeve, and shoulder.

But prior to my move to China, that’s all tailoring meant to me–someone to trim normal-adult-sized clothes down to fit my oompa-loompa-sized body. Post China-move, I see the tailor in a whole new light.

As my one stop shopping for the perfect clothes for me.

The first time I walked into my tailor’s shop, I was like the proverbial kid in a candy shop. The sheer volume and variety of fabrics was staggering–pumpkin-hued laces, grey tweeds shot through with lavender and sage, weighty cream jerseys, and, of course, silks, as far as the eyes and fingers could explore. Piled atop one another, there was a sheerly gluttonous pleasure in letting them flow through your fingers, bolt after bolt dyed radiant periwinkle and rich emerald, embellished with sparrows and cherry blossoms.

With all these options, is it any wonder that my biggest tailoring challenge is narrowing down my choices to make a purchase?

In the first of my many batches of tailor orders, I purchased a qí páo (A.K.A cheongsam), the lovely traditional Chinese dress iconic for its mandarin collar, frog closures, and double leg slits. I’ve read that they’re an ideal silhouette for showcasing the female form. Now, as  the proud owner of one (two, three….) qí páo (or qí páo-inspired dresses), I’m a believer. My traditional formal silk qí páo highlights my best features, all while disguising those I’m not so fond of.

Hard to ask too much more of a dress than that.

(P.S.: Depending on who you ask, Western women should or should not wear qí páo. Any thoughts, dear readers?)

It’s difficult to decide which I adore more: the way my qí páo looks, or the way it feels: the silk smooth and cool against my skin, the lines of the dress settling along the lines of my body just so. It fits like a glove. Like a second skin. Like…. Well, like it was made for me.

My amazing tailor’s talents don’t stop at qí páo, though. She’s made some incredible western-style pieces for me, too–silhouettes inspired by findings online, chic dresses modeled by celebrities, haute couture designs I could never even contemplate affording. Some of these pieces also come with the bonus of fond memories attached.

One dress stands a favorite in this regard. When my husband saw me preparing to leave for work wearing this piece, thereby officially welcoming it into my closet, the following conversation ensued:

Husband: Where did you get that dress?

Me: The tailor.

H: Huh.

M: Huh? What does “huh” mean?

H: Well, I just didn’t think you’d get a plain white dress from the tailor. That’s all.

M: Plain white dress? This is a Chanel design. A winter-weight white dress with a bloused bodice, tapered sleeve, and asymmetrically swagged skirt. 

H: (Smiling provokingly.) Yeah. A white dress.

Now every time I wear that bloused-bodice-swagger-skirt Chanel dress, I smile a little. Remember how lucky I am to have a husband who affectionately teases me, how blessed I am to have someone who makes me laugh.

But although the clothes are beautiful, and the opportunity to design something is incredibly satisfying on a creative level (the first career aspiration I remember having as a child was to be a fashion designer, so in a strange way, this is a return to an old dream), visiting the tailor has come to mean something more.

It provides a fascinating lattice of cultural interaction, highlighting similarities and differences alike. In so many ways, women from across the world are just alike. My mandarin may be broken, and my tailor’s English minimal, but when I tried on my gorgeous red silk gown for an upcoming ball and loved it so much that I hugged her, I could feel in her return embrace that she knew exactly what I was wordlessly saying:

I love my dress. As a woman, I so yearn to be beautiful. And this dress makes me feel beautiful.

I gave a final little twirl before taking off the gown and I could see in her smile that she got it. That she’d felt the same way, too, as had her many clients, expats and Chinese alike.

But cultural differences are also perfectly reflected in the microcosm that is fashion. When I dragged my best friend Amber to the tailor during her visit, she decided to get a qí páo for herself. But her twist on it (to make it more wearable in the U.S.) was this: to have it done in black, so it could stand as an LBD.

Even with my rather paltry translation skills, I immediately picked up on the tailor’s reluctance to do such a garment in black. She kept showing my friend different swatches, trying to lure her with a swatch of lǜ sè (green) silk, a swatch of lán sè. The other women in the shop were obviously equally flabbergasted–the repeated mention of hēi sè (black), followed by giggles, made that obvious enough.

Amber’s black qí páo turned out beautifully, and she’s 100% right that having it in black will make it more American-fashion-friendly. But in the Chinese culture, the qí páo is a garment of spring, of celebration, of weddings (always done in hóng sè (red) silk upon that most festive occasion.) According to Chinese taste, the brighter the silk the better when it comes to qí páo. To get one in black is funereal, ridiculous–a stark contrast to the evening elegance such a color choice would communicate in the U.S.

But more than anything else, visiting the tailor is a way women come together. In a career like the Foreign Service where you and your co-workers are rotating out every few years (always on staggered schedules) to new locations across the globe, it can be very difficult to build those deep female ties–and I’ll admit it: I need those in a way I’ve really only fully recognized since moving to China.

As people in my Consulate community have moved on to new assignments, my tailor-visting set of friends has changed, altered. But no matter who I go a-tailoring with, there is that immediate connection over beautiful fabrics and designs, over amateur fashion shows and the rich challenge of finding just the right fabric to suit a person’s taste, frame, and design. It’s amazing and encouraging to see how women of diverse background and fashion-sense come together to assist each other, genuinely, truly aiming to help one another look her best. It’s a kind of earnest cooperation, an others-mindedness that’s often all too absent from life.

Yes, visiting the tailor is a pleasure of the senses–the eyes, the hands, the skin. There is a purely vain enjoyment in owning and wearing something beautiful. And that’s okay, within reason–beauty can be a kind of balm, a respite for the spirit.

And the community formed at the tailor? Well, that’s a pleasure for the soul.

3 thoughts on “Tailors, Qí Páo & Silks… Oh My!

  1. Beautiful silks for a beautiful woman! Thank you for sharing! As one short woman to another…I am glad you found such a gifted tailor!! Your photos are lovely!! 🙂


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