Culture Stories: Vietnamese Áo dài Dress

QuangNhat Áo dài dress, Duong Jewelry & Object Blooming Crystal Cuff & Earrings

QuangNhat Áo dài dress, Duong Jewelry & Object Blooming Crystal Cuff & Earrings

The áo dài dress (pronounced "ow yai"  in southern Vientam or "ow zai" in the north, pictured above) is Vietnam's national dress. It was the official dress of aristocrats attending court of the Nguyễn Lords in Huế, Vietnam in the 18th century, and a favorite of Prada and Giorgio Armani devotees in the 1990s and Hollywood starlets today. It ties femininity to Vietnamese nationalism and is worn primarily by women daily as official uniform in the workplace, casual attire and formal dress for special occasions, including weddings and Tết, Vietnamese New Year.
During the 17th and 18th centuries Vietnam was divided into two regions. The Nguyen family ruled the south. To distinguish their subjects from northerners, Nguyen lords ordered southern men and women to wear Chinese-style trousers and long, front-buttoning tunics. After the Nguyen family gained control over the entire country in 1802, the conservative Confucian Emperor Minh Mang (r. 1820-1841) banned women's skirts previously worn as standard dress on aesthetic and moral grounds. Over the next century, precursors to the modern  áo dài became popular in cities. 

Under French colonialism (1858-1954), Vietnamese intelligentsia and an emerging urban bourgeoisie strove to adopt progressive elements of Western modernity while at the same time resisting colonialism and preserving select aspects of Vietnamese heritage. During the 1930s, as part of the efforts of Tu Luc Van Doan (Self-Reliance Literary Group) to fashion a modern "new woman," Hanoi artist Nguyen Cat Tuong, also known as Le Mur, premiered áo dài styles inspired by French fashion. The light-colored, close-fitting tunics featured longer panels, puffy sleeves, asymmetrical lace collars, buttoned cuffs, scalloped hems, and darts at the waist and chest, thus requiring a brassiere or corset. Le Mur's Europeanized flared pants were white with snugly tailored hips. Criticized by conservatives as scandalous, Le Mur's designs nonetheless marked the emergence of a contemporary áo dài blending traditional Vietnamese elements with Western tailoring and bodily aesthetics.

French colonialism ended in 1954 with the division of Vietnam into North and South. In North Vietnam, communist leaders criticized the áo dài as bourgeois, colonial, and impractical for manual labor, although women continued to wear it for special occasions. Meanwhile, in capitalist South Vietnam, experimentation with the garment continued. Madame Nhu (Tran Le Xuan), the sister-in-law of President Ngo Dinh Diem, became notorious in the 1950s and 1960s for the skin-baring open necklines of her áo dài. Also at this time, two Saigon tailors redesigned the áo dài to include raglan sleeves, thus reducing wrinkling around the shoulders and armpits.

Madame Nhu (Tran Le Xuan)

Tran Le Xuan

1960s streetstyle

In 1975, the Vietnam War ended with the reunification of North and South under communist rule. Leaders decried the southern áo dài as decadent and instead promoted simpler, utilitarian clothing styles, but austerity proved short-lived. By the 1990s, economic reforms and improved standards of living led to a revival of the áo dài within Vietnam and to growing international awareness of it as a symbol of Vietnamese identity. In 1989, the Women's Newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City hosted the first Miss Áo Dài contest. Six years later, Miss Vietnam's blue brocade áo dài won the prize for best national costume at Tokyo's Miss International Pageant.

Miss Áo dài Pageant, Paris - popular both in Vietnam and the diaspora as a symbol and means of preserving ethnic heritage. When this pageant was filmed, women competed on the intricacy of their traditional tunic instead of a swimsuits popular in western competitions.

Following the 1992 films "Indochine" and "The Lover", both set in the French colonial period, Ralph Lauren, Richard Tyler, Claude Montana, and Giorgio Armani debuted áo dài-inspired collections. The use of which is welcomed in Vietnam as evidence that the áo dài has entered the canon of international fashion.

On the catwalk then and now (l to r): Ralph Lauren circa 1992, Alexander Vauthier Couture 2012, Emilio Pucci S/S RTW 2013

Michelle Williams wearing Prada to movie premiere, 2013
At weddings and other formal occasions, circular headgear, the khăn đóng, is worn with the  áo dài.
Excerpts reprinted from Anne Marie Lechkowich's thoroughly researched article on
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