The Vietnamese "Ao Dai," the traditional long gown worn with trousers by Vietnamese women, holds great significance as a symbol of Vietnamese feminine beauty and national pride. Its prominence was highlighted in 1995 when the Vietnamese representative, Truong Quynh Mai, received the Best National Costume award at the Miss International Pageant in Tokyo. However, even before this international recognition, the Ao Dai had long been revered by artists and poets, firmly establishing its place in Vietnamese arts and literature.
The origins of the Ao Dai can be traced back to the southern courtiers during the reign of Lord Nguyen Phuc Khoat. Seeking to establish a distinct identity from their northern counterparts, Lord Nguyen mandated that both men and women in his court wear trousers beneath a long gown. This led to the creation of the Ao Dai, which drew inspiration from the clothing style of the Cham people, the original inhabitants of the southern region. By incorporating elements from Cham culture, Lord Nguyen aimed to show respect and gain the support of the Cham community, whose land had been conquered by the Vietnamese.
While some may consider the Ao Dai to be a variation of the northern Ao Tu Than, the two garments have separate origins and characteristics. The Ao Tu Than is typically worn by peasant women in the North and consists of four panels, two at the front and two at the back. The back panels are stitched together, while the front panels remain open or are secured with a belt. Underneath the Ao Tu Than, women would wear a bodice ("Yem") to cover the chest and a long skirt ("Vay") to cover the legs. The fabric used for the Ao Tu Than was woven in narrow widths, necessitating the four-panel structure.
Empress Nam Phuong
Statue: Maria wears "Ao dai".
Initially, the Ao Dai was plain and loosely fitted, lacking aesthetic appeal. However, in 1930, a group of French-trained artists, starting with Cat Tuong (also known as Le Mur), combined elements of the five-panel gown (Ao Ngu Than) with influences from French fashion. This fusion of styles transformed the Ao Dai from simplicity to beauty and sensuality. The elegance displayed by Hoang Hau Nam Phuong, the last empress of Vietnam, while wearing the Ao Dai left a profound impact on artists. Painters and sculptors began incorporating the Ao Dai into their works, and depictions of historical female figures, including the Virgin Mary, became increasingly popular.
The Ao Dai gained political significance when Tran Le Xuan, wife of Ngo Dinh Nhu, Chief Political Adviser of South Vietnam, wore a décolleté version to promote the New Woman Movement. Nguyen Thi Binh, a negotiator for the Vietcong, also wore the Ao Dai as a symbol of patriotism at the Paris Peace Conference. Ironically, the Communist government initially banned the Ao Dai, considering it a symbol of "capitalist decadence." It wasn't until the late 1980s that the Ao Dai regained its stature, culminating in Truong Quynh Mai's recognition.
Today, the Ao Dai remains a popular choice for Vietnamese women on special occasions. Fashion designers like Thiet Lap from the 1960s and Sy Hoang of the present day continue to innovate new designs. Modern adaptations, such as raglan sleeves and higher openings on the sides, add sensuality and sexiness to the Ao Dai while maintaining a delicate and modest appearance.
The Ao Dai has also become a cause for celebration, with the Ao Dai Beauty Pageant becoming a prominent event in Vietnam and Vietnamese communities worldwide. Many renowned Vietnamese fashion designers dedicate their careers to creating new looks for the Ao Dai.
On the other hand, the traditional Ao Dai for men has undergone minimal changes and is now primarily worn during traditional ceremonies by older generations. Vietnamese men have embraced the masculinity and practicality of Western clothing.