Visitors to Vietnam are often pleasantly surprised to ﬁnd slender, long-hair women clad in ‘ao dai’, Vietnam’s national costume. This dress consists of a split-sided tunic over silk pantaloons. In world fashion, the ao dai stands out in several respects. As the uniform of school girls and shop clerks, it is both a formal dress and daily street wear. It remains far more visible in today’s culture than either China’s quipao (cheongsam) or Korea’s hanbok for example.
To many, the allure and grace of the ao dai is irresistible.
“The ao dai covers everything, but hides nothing,” according to one saying. This feature allows the dress to combine sexuality and tradition, although the traditional version of the ao dai was an unrevealing multi-layered gown. “The shape of the female body is accentuated, but hid- den as the dress clings tightly to it,” wrote Nhi Lieu, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin. This sexualised image, however, is contained within the bounds of respectability and curbed under the sight of ‘cultural’.
The Vietnamese ao dai pervades every aspect of daily life in both the city and the countryside. Unlike many traditional dresses seen elsewhere in the world, the ao dai is not merely for show or for tourism, and it is still respected even by today’s younger, more materialistic generation.
Although the motorcycle is the main form of transportation in urban Vietnam, an ao dai clad student on a bicycle is still a common sight, particularly in the South of the country. These beautiful ‘butterﬂies’, as poets call them, brighten the appearance of the street. Writers who advocate the use of the ao dai as a uniform cite its inconvenience as a virtue, a feature that teaches students’ feminine modesty and caution. In Vietnamese culture there are numerous tales of tomboys trained in feminine demeanor by a father who requires them to wear ao dai.
The general meaning of ao dai is ‘gown’. It thus refers to a range of garments that an English-speaker would not think of ao dais. For example, a qipao is a Chinese ao dai. A Vietnamese ao daisimply speciﬁes the split-sided Vietnamese gown.
In the 1920’s artists associated with the French Indochina College of Fine Arts in Hanoi redesigned the ngu than as a dress and a modernised version created a storm when it was featured in the newspaper Today in 1935. Shortages and economic turmoil associated with World War II and the Franco Vietminh War (1946-1954) led to the reem
ergence of traditional styles but by the mid 1950’s and early 60’s the administration of President Ngo Dinh Diem and his ﬁrst lady Madame Nhu, vigorously promoted the modern ao dai as a national costume.
The years 1960-75 were the heyday of the ao dai in the South. The ao dai for men, or ao gam, never recovered after the Diem administration but the female version remained the dominant form of dress in all the cities and towns of the South. Even peasant women would wear them on their weekly market day. The ao dai was effectively banned under Communist rule for some years after 1975 and did not really re-emerge until 1983 when a high school in the Mekong Delta town of Ca Mau adopted it as a uniform. This breakthrough, however, was only a ﬁrst step in a slow revival. With the annual cloth ration at only two meters a year fashions of the 1980’s remained drab and spartan.
The doi moi political reforms that began in 1986 resulted in an opening up to the non-communist world, a revival of the economy and, eventually, a re-emergence of the ao dai.
The 1992 ﬁlms Indochine and The Lover inspired worldwide interest in Vietnamese fashion, with several international fashion houses offering ao dai collections. In 1995, an ao dai worn by Ms. Truong Quynh Mai was chosen as ‘Best National Costume’ at the Miss International Pagaent in Tokyo, triggering an ‘ao dai craze’ that lasted for several years.
During the mid 1990’s it was common for young Vietnamese women to choose an ao dai over modern western style dress, although today the ao dai is no longer as common a sight as those days. Still, the dress is actively worn during formal occasions, festivals and traditional events as well as remaining the uniform of many schools in the South and for some company staff, both private and government.
What does the future hold for the ao dai? A dress so delicate, elegant and sensual will always appeal to the feminine form and with such a strong identity associated with the beauty of Vietnam, it is hard to envisage a time when more modern western dress will over power basic national pride. A turbulent history has tried to change the ao dai or relinquish it altogether and failed. Surely, even Vietnam’s pull into the modern age will keep the ao dai alive?