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Ao Dai - The Iconic Costume of Vietnam
In Vietnam, there are two types of ao dai: one for men and one for women. Men's ao dai nowadays can only be found in ancient ceremonies. In contrast, women's ao dai is in use in both everyday life and special occasions. It also has an interesting history which reflects the modernization of Vietnam.
Women's ao dai as it is known today appeared in the early twentieth century. Before that, the costume that is closest to ao dai is the dress of the ladies of the upper classes in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. This costume is the integration of ao tu than, the traditional dress of Northern women, and the dress of Champa women, which was brought about by the southward move of the Nguyen lords in seventeenth century. It looks like ao dai but it is much statelier and does not show off the curves of the female body. It is made from thick and heavy fabric. The young artists educated at the French Indochina College of Fine Arts modified this stately costume and turned it into modern ao dai. The first modern ao dai is believed to have appeared around 1921 and by 1934 ao dai became widely accepted throughout Vietnam.
Ao dai symbolizes the changes in Vietnam's society under the influence of Western culture at the beginning of the 20th century. Its design which purposely enhanced the physical beauty of women embraced the new concept of female beauty imported from France. That was scandalous at that time when anything related to physical attraction, however remotely, was taboo. Ao dai also marks the greater independence and the more active role of women in the modern society. The new and somewhat rebellious appeal of this new type of dress then was a sign that the women, who had been denied the right to care about themselves and to participate in activities other than domestic chores, recognized their rights and confidently played a greater part in social affairs. The first women to wear ao dai were teachers, nurses and students.
The flowing gracefulness of ao dai is specially suited to physical characteristics of Vietnamese women, which accounts for its enduring popularity. There have been various modifications on ao dai but basically the ao dai today is the same as when it was first introduced. To increase the beauty of the dress, rich and soft fabrics like silk and velvet are preferable. Numerous textures and decorative motifs have been created for this unique costume. Ao dai is also a great inspiration for Vietnamese fashion designers.
Ao dai is generally used for formal occasions like ceremonies and conferences but some women like to wear it to work. White ao dai is schoolgirls' uniform in many schools and female teachers are often required to wear ao dai in working hours. The scene of schoolgirls in white flowing ao dai cycling home after school is probably one of the most famous images of Vietnam.