Vietnamese women are defined by both their delicacy, as well as their strength in times of hardship; Ao Yem dresses are a classic embodiment of the grace and power of the Vietnamese woman. Once simply called ‘yem’, the ancient article of women’s clothing Ao Yem is an iconic testament to Vietnamese elegance. Along-side ‘áo dài’, Ao Yem dresses have stood the test of time and remained a quintessential piece of inherent Vietnamese style.
In the 1920s, a French designer called Madeleine Vionnet – known for her ancient-Greece-inspired clothing styles that clung to the shape of the body – brought the halter neck to the Western fashion world. It was not the first time the world had seen such a design, however. A very similar cut of garment had been a clothing staple in the East for hundreds of years.
Starting from square one
The yem – itself inspired by the Chinese dudou – has been worn in Vietnam since at least the 1300s, when its use spread from China into Northern Vietnam. Both words have a meaning similar to ‘cover’ and the Vietnamese word, particularly, suggests a front covering. Traditionally, it is made from a square shaped piece of cloth which has one corner missing. String is attached to the missing corner of the garment and that is tied at the back of the neck, so that the diamond of cloth drapes over the front of the body. The two corners of the cloth at the sides of the body also have string attached, which is then tied together behind the back.
The dudou was originally used in China to flatten the breasts and to keep good stomach qi. The garments often had pockets in them for holding various aromatic substances, which were also intended to improve the qi of the stomach, which the Chinese believed was the source of the body’s qi. In Vietnam, this tradition evolved into carrying perfume as a way of enhancing a young woman’s attractiveness. Under Vietnamese culture, It was also thought to be lucky for young women to carry betel in one of the pockets when visiting a young man of their liking. The shared chewing of betel – which is a mild stimulant – is a traditional icebreaker in Vietnam.
A choice for everyone
In the past, women of all classes wore the yem, which – as it was an undergarment – gained less exposure to the world than other items of clothing. However, the style varied a lot depending on wealth. Women who lived in the countryside and worked in the fields tended to wear more somber colors and richer women wore more brightly colored garments. The top of the yem would also sometimes be decorated and the neck cut in different styles. This is because the top part of the yem was visible.
The yem was traditionally worn as part of an outfit called the ao tu than, which comprised of:
- a skirt, called a vay dup;
- a floor-length gown without fastenings;
- a sash that was used to tie the gown shut; and
- a yem, which covered the top half of the body.
No yem for them
In the 1820s, the Nguyen emperor of the time outlawed the ao tu than and tried to force his subjects to wear the ao dai – a long gown that is buttoned down the front – and trousers instead. This was because the ao dai was the style of clothing worn by the people at the Nguyen court and the ao tu than was worn more among the people in the North who had previously been ruled by the Trinh Lords – enemies of the Nguyen.
The use of the ao tu than became rarer, but the yem was still used as an undergarment by many. However, as Western influences seeped into Vietnam through French colonization and globalization, the yem’s use as an undergarment began waning due to the uptake of the bra.
Coming back onto the front
The yem has been reinvented, though. In its new guise as the ao yem – which means ‘shirt which covers the front’ – the garment is worn less as an undergarment and more as a top. The fact that it covers the whole of the front of the top half of the body, but very little of the back, is seen as alluring, but not openly sexual. Now that this traditional square of cloth has been given the modern touch, it seems likely to be in fashion in Vietnam – and in similar variations across the world – for a long time to come.