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The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Qun Kwa for Your Chinese Wedding

The qun kwa has a special place in Chinese weddings, even during modern times. A traditional Chinese bridal gown, it consists of intricate embroideries and patterns made with gold and silver threads, featuring motifs that are believed to bring luck and happiness to the couple. Find out everything you need to know about qun kwa here.

Although often called a wedding qipao, a qun kwa shouldn’t be confused with the qipao, which is a figure-hugging one-piece and can be worn outside of wedding celebrations. Qun kwa is only worn at weddings.

What is a qun kwa?

A qun kwa (裙褂, literally “skirt jacket”) is a two-piece gown that is traditionally worn at weddings by the bride, her mother and mother-in-law, as well as grandmothers and grandmothers-in-law. It is also colloquially known as kwa.

Qun kwa for the bride consists of a jacket and a long skirt, featuring elaborate embroidery depicting dragons and phoenixes using gold and silver threads, and embellishment such as coloured sequins and pearls. The dragon and phoenix symbolises a perfect harmony between male and female and is something you’ll seen often at Chinese weddings.

The bride’s qun kwa is always bright red, the colour of celebrations and weddings in Chinese culture, whereas colours of qun kwa for other women will be a bit more subdued: think deep reds and purple.

Although often called a wedding qipao, a qun kwa shouldn’t be confused with the qipao, which is a figure-hugging one-piece and can be worn outside of wedding celebrations. Qun kwa is only worn at weddings.

Some brides in Chinese weddings opt to dress in a qun kwa for some parts of the day — for example during the tea ceremony, or while exiting her parents’ home — and wearing a western-style bridal gown for other parts of the day. Others choose to do away with the qun kwa, or simply to change wear a qipao, which has fewer traditions attached when it comes to design.

The embroideries and motifs are all believed to bring luck and happiness to the marriage.

Why wear a qun kwa?

Unlike modern white bridal gowns, which have evolved over time and there are still considerable traditions attached to qun kwa designs.

The qun kwa was said to have become a popular bridal gown when the daughter of a Qing dynasty politician wore a gold-threaded red dress, a gift from the emperor, on her wedding day. Although originally worn by aristocrats in historic times, the qun kwa eventually became widespread at weddings.

The embroideries and motifs are all believed to bring luck and happiness to the marriage. The dragon and phoenix motifs sit front and centre on the brocade jacket.

Qun kwa are designed to have a relaxed, loose fit, to allow for the bride to carry out activities on the wedding day with ease — think kneeling during the tea ceremony.

Some grooms choose to wear the equivalent to a qun kwa, the traditional ma kwa (馬褂) — but much like wearing a qun kwa, this is entirely optional. It is not uncommon to see brides in a qun kwa and grooms in western suits. 

Credits: Gaia Project

How do I choose a design?

Although qun kwa styles look very similar, there are differences between certain cuts.

A brocade jacket with a the zip down the front and a straight skirt is called a “dragon phoenix kwa” (龍鳳褂). In historic times, when polygyny was widely observed in Chinese societies, the dragon phoenix kwa was worn by a man’s first wife on their wedding day.

In contrast, the Xiao Fengxian kwa (小鳳仙) features a jacket with a slim waist and A-line skirt, with less fancy patterns. The Xiao Fengxian was traditionally reserved for the likes of weddings of mistresses and maids (in fact, it is named after a famous courtesan who lived in China in the early 20th century).

Both have three-quarter sleeves, which is a design that lets the bride show off gold jewellery, such as “dragon phoenix bangles”, gifted to her by the groom’s family. There’s a distinctive feature that separates the dragon phoenix kwa and Xiao Fengxian kwa: On the former, the jacket features a Mandarin collar, whereas the latter has a rounded collar similar to a Peter Pan collar you would find on a western women’s dress shirt.

You don’t have to opt for a dragon phoenix kwa over a Xiao Fengxian, though most Chinese brides do to avoid negative connotations.

Another option, popularly known as the Sau Wo style (秀禾服), was commonly worn by women on their wedding day in the last decades of Qing dynasty and after the fall of imperialism (late 1800s to early 1900s). The name “Sau Wo” actually comes from a character on the popular 2002 Chinese-language TV show “When Tangerines Turn Red”, who was depicted wearing a gown of this kind.

The Sau Wo style has a similar look to the dragon phoenix kwa. It also has a loose fit, particularly on the sleeves, which are full-length. The patterns and embroideries are much more elaborate than on the dragon phoenix kwa: there are peonies and goldfish, which represent abundant wealth; lilies, symbolising longevity of the marriage; bats, because the Chinese word for “bat” rhymes with “blessing”.

You can only try on items separately, and the only time you will actually be wearing the entire piece will be on your wedding day.

What do I need to know when shopping for a qun kwa?

Make an appointment with a qun kwa maker. There are shops in Hong Kong that offer kwa-making, or kwa for rental.

Aside from design, qun kwa is separated into five different categories according to the density of gold and silver threads that run through the dress:

  1. “The king of kwa” (褂皇): 100% gold and silver density. The dress will be mostly covered in gold.
  2. “The queen of kwa” (褂后): 85-90% gold and silver. There will be some red, the colour of the dress, visible.
  3. “Big five fortune” (大五福): 60-80% gold and silver. 
  4. “Middle five fortune” (中五福): 55-70% gold and silver.
  5. “Small five fortune” (小五福) less than 50% gold and silver.

An experienced dressmaker will be able to walk you through what kind of motifs and patterns can go on the dress, as well as how to get it, which starts with the skirt and ends with the jacket. The dress-making process takes around six weeks.

Some basics to know: you might see scalloped hems on the jacket, though straight hems are the more traditional route because they represent a stable marriage without drama (and who wouldn’t want that)! Qun kwa traditionally came with two pieces of material sewn at the front of the dress known as the “children and grandchildren belts”, which was believed to bring offspring to the couple. Many modern designs forgo this part. Qun kwa don’t tend to come with pockets — another tradition for luck.

You can also shop for shoes here, which should be brand new. Brides tend to wear red silk undergarments, so be sure to shop for these too.

Note that according to tradition, you shouldn’t try on the entire qun kwa in one go. You can only try on items separately, and the only time you will actually be wearing the entire piece will be on your wedding day. This is because you should only get married “once”, so to speak.

Credits: Patrick Photography

Dos

  • Decide when to wear the qun kwa during the wedding day. The tea ceremony is a good option, given that it is a traditional setting.
  • Have your mother help you get dressed into the qun kwa. This is a beautiful tradition still observed in modern times — the mother is said to pass down her luck to her daughter.
  • Get it right on the first fitting because unfortunately, tailoring on the qun kwa is considered to bring bad luck.

Donts

  • Wear the qun kwa more than once, especially during the wedding day. It is considered bad luck for a bride to get dressed into the kwa more than once because it’s as if you’re getting married “twice”.
  • Rent a qun kwa that has been used too many times. Gold and silver threads start to look a bit worn out after several uses. You can ask how many times a rental qun kwa has been worn before making a decision
  • Lend the qun kwa to your friends before your wedding day — this also brings bad luck.