by Serena Liang, Contributing Writer
The princesses of the Manchurian court and maidens of noble families were a signature sight of China’s last dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911 C.E.). These ladies wore elaborate headdresses, elevated shoes, and long qipao gowns with lavish embellishments along their collars, hems, and slits made of heavy satin or silk. Perhaps for every fashionista, beauty comes at a price, and this was indeed the case for Manchurian women.
Manchurian ladies wore huge fan-shaped headdresses decorated with flowers on the front and back, with two strings of tassels running down each side. What’s more, the ladies’ pedestal shoes had “heels” in the middle of the footwear, which forced them to walk in tiny steps while gently swinging their arms to and fro. Sewn with beautiful floral designs and patterns, the shoes are made and set atop an elevated base creating a flower-pot effect; hence they’re called “flower-pot shoes.”
Now, it’s important we don’t confuse between the Manchurian and Chinese qipaos. These two qipaos have similar designs but are strikingly different in terms of style. The Chinese qipao originated from Shanghai and became popular during the 20th century. They were evening dresses for women and were designed to be sleeveless and tight-fitted. The Manchurian qipao, however, is attire that could be worn in all seasons. Greatly adorned and made with satin or silk, these one-piece dresses ran from the collar down to the ankle, with a small opening down the side of the calves. The dresses are also worn with matching pants, ensuring only the head, hands, and feet are exposed. In the winter, Manchurian qipao also often embeds cotton or fur to keep the ladies warm.
So, what exactly are these ladies called? Their title, “ge-ge,” originated from a Manchurian term meaning “miss” or “lady.” Ge-ge are known, even to this day, for holding themselves with dignified grace and beauty while strolling the halls of the Manchurian court. They presented perfect posture and etiquette, greeting their superiors with a gentle toss of their hand-held silk handkerchief, or curtsying on the side to express respect. In public view, the ge-ge were a symbol of ultimate beauty and elegance, so they always had to be mindful of their every move to stay graceful.
With such high demands, perhaps the happiest time in the day of these ladies was when they took off their flower-pot shoes. Yet, this way of life was also deeply rewarding for themselves and inspiring for those who looked upon them and admired the purity of their beauty.
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