Ao Dai: Clothing with a History

Ao Dai is arguably the most impressive and iconic embodiment of Vietnamese style. These garments are indicative of inherent Vietnamese femininity and beauty – regarded all over the world as an emblem of the elegant women of the country.

Origins of Ao Dai

It all began with a Lord. He decreed there should be robes and trousers. And there were. And there are. And they are so fashionable it seems likely that there will be for many generations to come.

In 1744, Lord Nguyen Phuc Khoat – one of a line of Nguyen lords that ruled in the south of Vietnam – decided that all the men and women at his court should wear the combination of trousers and a long five-paneled robe, split on both sides at the waist, with buttons down the front of it. The robe was given the name ao dai. Although perhaps not particularly original, it is a fitting name, since it translates literally as “long garment” or “long top”.

Lord Nguyen made the order because he wanted to distinguish his court from that of the Northern Trinh Lords, who were more powerful at the time. The clothing was similar to that worn by the Chinese at the time and more than 300 years earlier the Ming had occupied Vietnam and unsuccessfully attempted to force the fashion on their subjects.

When the Nguyen lords eventually came to power across the country and began calling themselves emperors in 1802, they again pushed the trouser-and-robe combination. It replaced the standard attire of the time, which included a somewhat similar robe (made of four cloth panels rather than five and lacking buttons), an undergarment top – called a yem – and a skirt. In 1820, the wearing of the skirts was banned altogether.

Tightening up

The ao dai was originally loose-fitting and often had quite wide sleeves. Despite the hot climate, some people wore three of four layers of the ao dai and left the top few buttons undone to make the layers visible. They did this to show off their wealth, since the material was very expensive at the time.

The ao dai retained its relatively conservative and loose shape until the 1930’s, during the period of French colonialism. A Vietnamese designer called Cat Tuong, who was also known by the French nickname Le Mur, used the inspiration of French fashion to create a far more form-fitting garment. The modern version of the ao dai is said to ‘cover everything, but hide nothing’.

The more conservative elements of society frowned on such a display of debauchery. In the 1970s, the Communist government attempted to stamp out what they saw as the undesirable effect of the decadent West on the people, but it was not fully effective.

The Revival of Ao Dai

In the 1980s, there were beauty pageants in various parts of Vietnam where the contestants wore the ao dai. Then, in the mid-1990s, a Vietnamese contestant wearing an ao dai in Tokyo’s Miss International Pageant won a prize for her costume. It was this, in large part, that led to a revival in the fashion for wearing what was becoming a symbol of Vietnamese culture and identity once more.

Although it is still not worn much day to day for adults, many schools use the ao dai as a part of their uniform. It is also often donned on special occasions such as Tet, the New Year celebration. At weddings, the bride and groom and the bridesmaids are usually all wearing an ao dai.

The ao dai has also affected trends in fashion internationally. Western designers such as Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani have created collections that are heavily influenced by the clothing. Although some have seen such pilfering of style as tacky cultural appropriation, many in Vietnam take the view that it is an acceptance and recognition of Vietnamese fashion and culture. What seems certain is that the ao dai is now here to stay.

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