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Classical Ladies' Fashion Design and The Society Changing (4): Vietnamese Ao Dai

Updated on March 7, 2014

Vietnamese Ao Dai

Ao dai is the Vietnamese national costume, and actually was for both men and women but now mainly for women. Like Chinese Qipao or Japanese Kimono, Ao dai is also a traditional clothing evolved from ancient time. However, Chinese Qipao and Japanese kimono have basically withdrawn out of historical stage but are more of cultural heritages, while ao dai is still popular in nowadays life. Young girls in ao dai can be seen everywhere.

The word "ao" derived from Chinese word "ao" (a short top padded coat), but in contemporary Vietnamese it refers to the whole dress below the neck, while "dai" means "long". Ao dai is typically made from silk or other soft materials. The upper outer garment is a long dress with slits at both sides down from the waist: the upper part looks similar to Chinese Qipao, tightly fitting to the body to reveal the elegant women's curve, and the lower part are two panels that can float in the air. This design is really related to the hot tropical climate. Under inside the two-panel skirt is a flare trousers. The whole one is classical and practical.

It is true that ao dai derived from Qi costume of China Qing Dynasty (detail statement in series 1: Chinese Qipao), so that some people simply call it "Vietnamese Qipao", but this is really a wrong concept. Historically, Vietnam was greatly influenced by China, France and the United States, so the development of ao dai had been inevitably influenced by fashion styles of all these countries, especially inspired by Paris fashions. Furthermore, the local concept has become growing for recent years with the increasing independent economy. Thus, ao dai is a fruit of integration of multiple cultures.

The otthn as worn in the North, 1800s
The otthn as worn in the North, 1800s

The Early Ao dai

In 39 A.D, the current West Han Dynasty of China had invaded Vietnam. Two sisters, Hai Ba Trung (trung means sisters), bravely led people to resist aggression. In honor of them, people had begun to wear a costume named áo tứ thân, which was a loose four-paneled gown. This is the earliest record about ao dai. In 1744, Vietnamese emperor of Nguyen Dynasty, Vuo Voong, advocated that women wore buttoned coats and pants, while one later emperor, Minh Mang, forbid women wearing skirt. Thus, pants-included costume had become very popular among upper class people. At the same time, Vietnamese costume was introduced the design of collars in Qi costume of the current China Qing Dynasty, i.e. the garment was open to one side down from the neck with buttons, which was more practical to put on and off. This was the early form of ao dai.

Two women wear o ng thn, the form of the ao dai worn in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
Two women wear o ng thn, the form of the ao dai worn in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries | Source

19th century

In the early 19th century, four-paneled áo tứ thân , had developed into the five-paneled gown, áo ngũ thân. Ngũ is China-Vietnamese for "five.", but it here refers not only to the number of panels, but also to the five elements in oriental astronomy, i.e. Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth (actually Chinese astronomy). The áo ngũ thân had a loose fit with long tight sleeves or sometimes broad ones. Vietnam locates at tropical area with hot weather all year long, but the current northern aristocrats wore three to five layers of fabric, because that was a symbol of prosperity at that time.

Ao ngũ thân already had the major features of modern ao dai. Two flaps were sewn together in the front, and another two in the back. A "baby flap" hidden underneath the main front flap. The whole design appeared as two-flaps with slits on both sides, a major feature preserved in the later ao dai. Besides, it had a high collar and was buttoned in the same fashion as a modern ao dai. Sometimes, women wore the dress with the top few buttons undone, tantalizingly revealing a glimpse of their underneath. This early form of ao dai was much broader and looser than modern form.

Raglan sleeve
Raglan sleeve

20th century

In the late of 1800s and the early of 1900s, Vietnam was colonized by France. Then, young girls began to enter French schools. Attracted to Paris concept, they required a fashion style that could both express their cultural superiority and lead fashion trend. In 1930s, the current famous designer and writer, Cát Tường (French call him Le Mur), was inspired by Paris fashion, and changed áo ngũ thân into a new style. He introduced a series of western styles, including vibrant colors, wrinkles on shoulders, nipped-in waist, round short collars and a vest, and a series of western accessories: shoulder pad, lace, fringe, and darts. Le Pho, an artist, continued and improved this design, and created the basic form of nowadays.

The westernized style temporarily disappeared during World War II. Two tailors, Tran Kim and Dung, used in 1950s raglan sleeves to avoid causing wrinkles when hands and arms move, and diagonal seam that runs from the collar to underarm. Besides, they changed trousers to more reveal butt shape. This design more tightened the fit on the whole and started the version commonly seen today. Tran Kim became a famous designer. He started his branch ao dai shop named Thiet Lap Tailors in California in 1982, and the old shop in Saigon was carried on by his son.

After 1954, Vietnam was broken into south and north parts. The south Vietnam was controlled by the United States. Madame Nhu, also known as "Dragon Madam" was currently the first lady of South Vietnam. She popularized a collarless style. (Actually, Nhu was the wife of one brother of the President. Since the President never got married, Nhu replaced the position of first lady, but she was an infamous woman.) Nhu often wore ao dai with boat-like collar or sailor collar to visit foreign guests. These designs could fully show the beauty of the neck. Ao dai was most popular from 1960 to 1975, during when there arose hippy and fancy styles with bright colors, and even mini-skirt trend. In 1975, Vietnam reunited. Communist leaders limited the development and popularization of ao dai to eliminate the influence of Capitalism. Ao dai was only allowed in a few occasions like wedding ceremonies, and almost disappeared at the time.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Young studentGirls wearing Ao dai in ordinary lifeMiss Ao Dai in 1989Truong Puynh Mai in 1995 "Miss Universe" contest: this blue-white ao dai was chosen as the best national apparel
Young student
Young student
Girls wearing Ao dai in ordinary life
Girls wearing Ao dai in ordinary life
Miss Ao Dai in 1989
Miss Ao Dai in 1989
Truong Puynh Mai in 1995 "Miss Universe" contest: this blue-white ao dai was chosen as the best national apparel
Truong Puynh Mai in 1995 "Miss Universe" contest: this blue-white ao dai was chosen as the best national apparel


In 1986, Vietnam began to reform. The government re-advocated ao dai as national costume. Ao dai has become the standard unit of women in all walks of life, including middle and high school students. Different colors are for different occasions, usually red for Spring Festival (the lunar new year), black for funeral, pink for wedding, and white for school students as a symbol of "innocence". Ao dai is favored to be school unitform turned out to be because of its inconvenience of wearing, which is regarded as a way to teach young girls feminine behavior in a refined manner, such as modesty and caution. In Ho Chi Minh city, young female students in white ao dai walk on streets in droves or alone, forming a beautiful view-line. They can wear colorful ao dai in graduation ceremony, indicating "maturity". The unit of air hostess is also in the form of ao dai. Generally, middle-aged women wear dark colors, while young females wear white and other light colors.

The first "Miss Ao Dai" contest was in 1989, when 16,000 Vietnamese Misses gathered in Ho Chi Minh city. Since then, more than 1,000 attractive beauties join in this contest every year, aged from 15 to 35. Students of art schools are encouraged to develop new styles, and women magazines publish new versions regularly. At the "Miss Universe" contest in Tokyo, Japan in 1995, Truong Puynh Mai's ao dai was chosen as the most beautiful national apparel, and ao dai has become world-wide known since then. Ao dai now represents the image of the nation, fashion trend, and even construction art. The design of a 65-storey building finished in Haoni last year was derived from ao dai, and it is also the highest building in Vietnam.

There is a saying that "ao dai covers everything, but hides nothing." It is tightened at breast, waist and back, and sleeves also tighten arms. Plus, velvet ao dai, embroidered, painted and printed with flower patterns have created exquisite beauty features allowing ao dai to take off ever higher. Nhi T. Lieu, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin wrote,"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".

Ao dai hue
Ao dai hue | Source


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