The “Ao Dai”, as it is known to many, not only is a trademark of Vietnamese tradition and pride of the people, but it is also a symbol of the country’s feminine beauty. This long gown worn with trousers is depicted in numerous songs and poems and is the source of inspiration for many artists, painters, and songwriters of all genres. Having gone through a long period of significant evolution, the Ao Dai remains the Vietnamese woman’s choice of fashion for many occasions and purposes. In Vietnam today, you can find young high school girls in white dresses lining the streets as they walk to school in the morning. Overseas, you can catch a glimpse of women of all ages in their multi-colored and patterned dresses attending church and temple services, festivals, and special occasions.
Our research took us back to the late 1800s under the reign of Lord Nguyen Phuc Khoat, who ruled over the southern regions of Vietnam. Lord Nguyen wanted to create a distinction between his southern court and those of the Trinh lords of the north who wore garments adopted from the Chinese. The king wanted the men and women of his southern court to wear trousers covered by a long gown. The majority of historians also agree that the first ao dai was likely adapted from the style of clothing worn by the Cham people, the original inhabitants of what we now call Central Vietnam. The original ao dai was loosely fitted and unflattering, as the same style was worn by both men and women.
In the later 1800s and early 1900s the ao dai was transformed into a five-panel gown called “ao ngu than”. This five-panel gown had two panels in the front, two panels in the back, and a hidden panel underneath the front panels. Ao ngu than also was very loose-fitting and unflattering for a woman’s body. A distinctive feature of this type of dress was that it was the first time the side slits on each hip was introduced. This side slit remains one of the most beautiful features of the modern ao dai.
Fast-forward a few decades to the 1930s-40s, Vietnam was under colonization by the French. The ao dai changed again, this time with French influence. Cat Tuong (Le Mur as she was called in French at that time), a famous Hanoian who brought about important redesign of the dress: she tightened the waist of the dress, making it more form-fitting for the woman’s body, raised the shoulders, and made the dress longer. You can see the result of Cat Tuong’s innovative changes to the ao dai through pictures of the empress of Vietnam. Hoang Hau Nam Phuong’s simple beauty yet exceptional elegance was the source of inspiration for many Vietnamese women at the time.
In 1958, Tran Le Xuan, the wife of the president’s chief advisor and brother at that time, presented the ao dai in its most controversial form yet when she wore a collarless ao dai with short sleeves. Gone were the days of the loose-fitting, unflattering ao dai; the ao dai of modern time was emerging with different color schemes and styles adapted from the West but still maintaining its traditional elegance.
The ao dai of today, despite western influences, continue to represent the culture and tradition of the Vietnamese woman. Despite having different fashion styles and with disregard to social status, I doubt you can find a Vietnamese woman without a traditional ao dai tucked in a special place in her closet full of western clothing.
During the Miss International Pageant held in Tokyo in 1995, the Ao Dai was chosen to be the Best National Costume. Through several centuries of evolution, the ao dai connects Vietnamese women of the older days to those of modern time. It gives a sense of identity to Vietnamese young women born and raised overseas. When one puts on the ao dai, she is the image of her mother, grandmother, and of the women who came before her.
Cover image by sasint