The Ao Dai is the most recognizable
traditional dress seen in Vietnam, and though western style
clothes are popular, this beautifully styled outfit is still
actively worn throughout the country during Tet, at work, to
weddings, and other national celebrations.
The word Ao Dai means ‘Long Dress,’ and is a two piece garment.
The bottom part consists of loose pants that reach the ankles.
The top is a tight fitting tunic with long sleeves and a high
collar with two panels that float loosely down the front and
The Ao Dai is famously known to ‘cover everything, but hide
nothing,’ and it perfectly accentuates the long, lithe body
possessed by Vietnamese women. When choosing to wear the Ao Dai
it pays to have a similarly shaped figure.
Historically the Ao Dai is believed to come from China, when the
newly crowned king Nguyen Phuc Khoat decreed in 1744 that the
Ming Chinese style of dress would be adopted by all his
subjects. Since then, both men and women have worn different
variations of the Ao Dai. It has never been an official
ceremonial dress, and has always been used an everyday outfit.
In Viet Nam, the ao dai is the
traditional dress for women. Developed from Chinese court clothing in the
1930s, this style of clothing went out of fashion in the north in 1954 and in
the south in 1975. Recently, however, it has made a comeback and is regaining
popularity in the south among schoolgirls and office workers, and is being worn
at formal functions. An indication of social standing, the ao dai is worn
by women who work as shop assistants or who have a higher social status, while
manual workers typically wear a loose top and baggy pants called an ao ba ba.
The ao dai is considered to be an elegant,
yet demure, garment. Traditionally, long, wide- legged trousers are worn under a
high-necked, long-sleeved, fitted tunic with slits along each side. The outfit’s
pants reach to the soles of the feet, often trailing along the ground. Over
time, the dress tunic has evolved, keeping with fashion trends, and has grown
shorter and shorter until it now falls just below the knees. The ao dai
can also be identified by its mandarin-style or boat-neck collar. Young girls
wear only pastel colored or white garments while married women wear either dark
or bright tunics over black or white trousers.
Historically, Vietnamese men dressed in mandarin
style suits. With a tunic shorter and fuller than the ao dai, the suit’s
color was traditionally determined by the man’s class and social rank. For
example, a purple suit denoted a high rank while blue denoted a low rank. Status
was also indicated through a variety of embroidered symbols. Today the mandarin
suit is rarely worn except for in traditional dance or music performances.
In general, Vietnamese people dress conservatively.
Although some young women wear more close-fitting, Western-style clothing, it is
considered inappropriate to wear revealing clothes during the day. One Westerner
teaching English in Viet Nam was advised to tuck her shirt into her trousers if
she expected respect from her students. It is considered inappropriate for
educated people to wear their shirts untucked.
Ao Dai history
Ao Dai History
A lasting impression for
any visitor to Vietnam is the beauty of the women dressed in their ao dais.
Girls dressed in white pick their way through muddy streets going home from
school or sail by in a graceful chatter on their bikes. Secretaries in
delicate pastels greet you at an office door and older ladies in deep shades
of purple, green or blue cut a striking pose eating dinner at a restaurant.
The ao dai appears to flatter every figure. Its body-hugging top flows over
wide trousers that brush the floor. Splits in the gown extend well above
waist height and make it comfortable and easy to move in. Although virtually
the whole body is swathed in soft flowing fabric, these splits give the odd
glimpse of a bare midriff, making the outfit very sensual. Rapidly becoming
the national costume for ladies, its development is actually very short
compared to the country's history.
Pronounced 'ao yai' in the
south, but 'ao zai' in the north, the color is indicative of the wearer's
age and status. Young girls wear pure white, fully lined outfits symbolizing
their purity. As they grow older but are still unmarried they move into soft
pastel shades. Only married women wear gowns in strong, rich colors, usually
over white or black pants. The ao dai has always been more prevalent in the
south than the north, but austerity drives after 1975 meant it was rarely
anywhere seen for a number of years as it was considered an excess not
appropriate for hard work. The nineties have seen a resurgence in the ao
dai's popularity. "It has become standard attire for many office workers and
hotel staff as well as now being the preferred dress for more formal
occasions," says Huong, a secretary for a foreign company. "I feel proud of
my heritage when I wear it." For visitors, the pink and blue of the Vietnam
Airlines uniform creates a lasting memory as they travel.
Early versions of the ao
dai date back to 1744 when Lord Vu Vuong of the Nguyen Dynasty decreed both
men and women should wear an ensemble of trousers and a gown that buttoned
down the front. It was not until 1930 that the ao dai as we know it really
appeared. Vietnamese fashion designer and writer Cat Tuong, or as the French
knew him, Monsieur Le Mur, lengthened the top so it reached the floor,
fitted the bodice to the curves of the body and moved the buttons from the
front to an opening along the shoulder and side seam. Men wore it less,
generally only on ceremonial occasions such as at weddings or funerals. But
it took another twenty years before the next major design change was
incorporated and the modern ao dai emerged. During the 1950s two tailors in
Saigon, Tran Kim of Thiet Lap Tailors and Dung of Dung Tailors, started
producing the gowns with raglan sleeves. This creates a diagonal seam
running from the collar to the underarm and today, this style is still
Its popularity is also
spreading well beyond Vietnam's borders. For years Vietnamese immigrants
preferred to adopt Western dress and blend with their new community but now
the ao dai is seeing a revival amongst overseas Vietnamese. At least here in
the United States this may be partly due to the arrival of Tram Kim, known
as Mr. Ao Dai. He shifted to California in 1982 and opened a new branch of
Thiet Lap Tailors in Garden Grove, Orange County, leaving his Saigon store
to his son. There are even annual Miss Ao Dai pageants held and the
prestigious Long Beach show attracts entrants from across the country. The
clothing has also inspired French designers including top names such as
Christian Lacroix and Claude Montana, and variations of the tight sleeves,
fitted bodice, high collar and flowing trousers have been seen on the
catwalks of Europe.
Every ao dai is custom
made, accounting for the fit that creates such a flattering look. Stores
specialize in their production and a team of cutters, sewers and fitters
ensure that the final product will highlight the figure of the wearer. Thuy,
a fitter in Ho Chi Minh City, says, "To create the perfect fit, customers
take their undergarments and shoes with them for the fittings." The pants
should reach the soles of the feet and flow along the floor.
Comfort has not been
forgotten at the expense of fashion and beauty. The cut allows the wearer
freedom of movement and despite covering the whole body, it is cool to wear.
Synthetic fabrics are preferred as they do not crush and are quick drying,
making the ao dai a practical uniform for daily wear.
Its popularity may be its
undoing as the garment is now being mass produced to make it more available
and cheaper. The gown length appears to be gradually shortening and today is
usually just below the knee. Variations in the neck, between boat and
mandarin style, are common and even adventurous alterations such as a low
scooped neckline, puffed sleeves or off the shoulder designs are appearing
as ladies experiment with fashion. Colors are no longer as rigidly
controlled and access to new fabrics has created some dazzling results. But
most visitors to Vietnam agree that the tailors already have the perfect
cut. It is hard to think of a more elegant, demure and yet sexy outfit, that
suits Vietnamese women of all ages, than the ao dai.
The National Costume - source: