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)
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