The áo dài is a Vietnamese national costume, now most commonly for women. In its current form, it is a tight-fitting silk tunic worn over pantaloons. The word is pronounced ow zai in the North and ow yai in the South of the country.
The word “Ao Dai” was originally applied to the outfit worn at the court of the Nguyễn Lords at Huế in the 18th century. This outfit evolved into the áo ngũ thân, a five-paneled aristocratic gown worn in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Inspired by Paris fashions, Nguyễn Cát Tường and other artists associated with Hanoi University redesigned the ngũ thân as a modern dress in the 1920s and 1930s. The updated look was promoted by the artists and magazines of Tự Lực văn đoàn (Self-Reliant Literary Group) as a national costume for the modern era. In the 1950s, Saigon designers tightened the fit to produce the version worn by Vietnamese women today.The dress was extremely popular in South Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s. On Tết and other occasions, Vietnamese men may wear an áo gấm (brocade robe), a version of the ao dai made of thicker fabric.
Academic commentary on the ao dai emphasizes the way the dress ties feminine beauty to Vietnamese nationalism, especially in the form of “Miss Ao Dai” pageants, popular both among overseas Vietnamese and in Vietnam itself.”Ao dai” is one of the few Vietnamese words that appear in English-language dictionaries.
Peasant women typically wore a halter top (Vietnamese: áo yếm) underneath a blouse or overcoat, that was paired with a skirt (váy). Influenced by the fashions of China’s imperial court, aristocrats favored less revealing clothes. In 1744, Lord Nguyễn Phúc Khoát of Huế decreed that both men and women at his court wear trousers and a gown with buttons down the front.Writer Lê Quý Đôn described the newfangled outfit as an áo dài (long garment). The members of the southern court were thus distinguished from the courtiers of the Trịnh Lords in Hanoi, who wore a split-sided jacket and a long skirt.
Two women wear áo ngũ thân, the form of the ao dai worn in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
The áo ngũ thân had two flaps sewn together in the back, two flaps sewn together in the front, and a “baby flap” hidden underneath the main front flap. The gown appeared to have two-flaps with slits on both sides, features preserved in the later ao dai. Compared to a modern ao dai, the front and back flaps were much broader and the fit looser. It had a high collar and was buttoned in the same fashion as a modern ao dai. Women could wear the dress with the top few buttons undone, revealing a glimpse of their yếm underneath.
Modernization of style
Hue’s Dong Khanh Girl’s High School, which opened in 1917, was widely praised for the ao dai uniform worn by its students. In 1930, Hanoi artist Cát Tường, also known as Le Mur, designed a dress inspired by the áo ngũ thân and by Paris fashions. It reached to the floor and fit the curves of the body by using darts and a nipped-in waist. When fabric became inexpensive, the rationale for multiple layers and thick flaps disappeared. Modern texile manufacture allows for wider panels, eliminating the need to sew narrow panels together. The áo dài Le Mur, or “trendy” ao dai, created a sensation when model Nguyễn Thị Hậu wore it for a feature published by the newspaper Today in January 1935. The style was promoted by the artists of Tự Lực văn đoàn (“Self-Reliant Literary Group”) as a national costume for the modern era. The painter Lê Phô introduced several popular styles of ao dai beginning in 1934. Such Westernized garments temporarily disappeared during World War II (1939–45).
Two girls wear ao dai
In the 1950s, Saigon designers tightened the fit of the ao dai to create the version commonly seen today. Trần Kim of Thiết Lập Tailors and Dũng of Dũng Tailors created a dress with raglan sleeves and a diagonal seam that runs from the collar to the underarm. The infamous Madame Nhu, first lady of South Vietnam, popularized a collarless version beginning in 1958. The ao dai was most popular from 1960 to 1975. A brightly colored áo dài hippy was introduced in 1968. The áo dài mini, a version designed for practical use and convenience, had slits that extended above the waist and panels that reached only to the knee.
The communist period
The ao dai has always been more common in the South than in the North. The communists, who gained power in the North in 1954 and in the South in the 1975, had conflicted feelings about the ao dai. They praised it as a national costume and one was worn to the Paris Peace Conference (1968–73) by Vietcong negotiator Nguyễn Thị Bình.Yet Westernized versions of the dress and those associated with “decadent” Saigon of the 1960s and early 1970s were condemned. Economic crisis, famine, and war with Cambodia combined to make the 1980s a fashion low point. The ao dai was rarely worn except at weddings and other formal occasions, with the older, looser-fitting style preferred. Overseas Vietnamese, meanwhile, kept tradition alive with “Miss Ao Dai” pageants (Hoa Hậu Áo Dài), the most notable one held annually in Long Beach, California.
The ao dai experienced a revival beginning in late 1980s, when state enterprise and schools began adopting the dress as a uniform again. In 1989, 16,000 Vietnamese attended a Miss Ao Dai Beauty Contest held in Saigon. When the Miss International Pageant in Tokyo gave its “Best National Costume” award to an ao dai-clad Trường Quỳnh Mai in 1995, Thời Trang Trẻ (New Fashion Magazine) gushed that Vietnam’s “national soul” was “once again honored.”An “ao dai craze” followed that lasted for several years and led to wider use of the dress as a school uniform.
No longer deemed politically controversial, ao dai fashion design is supported by the Vietnamese government. It is often called áo dài Việt Nam to link it to patriotic feelings. Designer Le Si Hoang is a celebrity in Vietnam and his shop in Saigon is the place to visit for those who admire the dress. In Hanoi, tourists get fitted with ao dai on Luong Van Can Street.The elegant city of Huế in the central region is known for its ao dai, nón lá (leaf hats), and well-dressed women.
The ao dai is now standard for weddings, for celebrating Tết and for other formal occasions. A plain white ao dai is a common high school school uniform in the South. Companies often require their female staff to wear uniforms that include the ao dai, so flight attendants, receptionists, restaurant staff, and hotel workers in Vietnam may be seen wearing it.
A schoolgirl in a white ao dai and a nón lá (leaf hat). This ensemble is associated with the central city of Huế
The most popular style of ao dai fits tightly around the wearer’s upper torso, emphasizing her bust and curves. Although the dress covers the entire body, it is thought to be provocative, especially when it is made of thin fabric. “The ao dai covers everything, but hides nothing”, according to one saying. The dress must be individually fitted and usually requires several weeks for a tailor to complete. An ao dai costs about $200 in the United States and about $40 in Vietnam.
“Symbolically, the ao dai invokes nostalgia and timelessness associated with a gendered image of the homeland for which many Vietnamese people throughout the diaspora yearn”, wrote Nhi T. Lieu, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin. The difficulties of working while wearing an ao dai link the dress to frailty and innocence, she wrote. Vietnamese writers who favor the use of the ao dai as a school uniform cite the inconvenience of wearing it as an advantage, a way of teaching students feminine behavior such as modesty, caution, and a refined manner.
The ao dai is featured in an array of Vietnam-themed or related movies. In Good Morning Vietnam (1987), Robin Williams’s character is wowed by ao dai-clad women when he first arrives in Saigon. The 1992 films Indochine and The Lover inspired several international fashion houses to design ao dai collections, including Prada’s SS08 collection and a Georgio Armani collection. In the Vietnamese film The White Silk Dress (2007), an ao dai is the sole legacy that the mother of a poverty-stricken family has to pass on to her daughters. The Hanoi City Complex, a 65-story building now under construction, will have an ao dai-inspired design.Vietnamese designers created ao dai for the contestants in the Miss Universe beauty contest, which was held July 2008 in Nha Trang, Vietnam.
Ao Dai Hoa Nguyen (st)