It’s hard to go more than a few hours in Vietnam without seeing groups of women clad in flowing, silk costumes float by in a cloud of pastels and lace. As iconic as the country’s national noodle soup dish and the conical hat, the ao dai is a staple of Vietnamese tradition that’s retained a place in society for centuries.
The ao dai has a past that’s not just its own – its story is interwoven with Vietnam’s own national history. Since its emergence in its earliest forms during the 18th Century, the ao dai has transformed from an aristocratic gown to one of the most iconic symbols of Vietnamese culture and heritage.
Then and Now
The story of the ao dai began during the reign of Nguyen Phuc Khoat, a southern lord bent on retaining a separate identity from his northern rivals, the Trinh lords. In an effort to symbolize his people’s distinction, he ordered that a two flap dress, inspired by the Cham people who originally inhabited the area, be worn at all times. Very plain and unflattering, the first iteration of the two flap Southern dress was a far cry from the chic modern silk dress.
When the Nguyen lords power eventually expanded to include northern regions after the defeat of the Trinh lords, the Cham inspired two-paneled dress came with it. The traditional northern-style four paneled dress transformed into a pairing if the southern Cham style and the original northern gown, becoming a five-panel dress popular throughout the country.
The transformation from traditional gown to everyday fashion came in the 1930s, when a group of French trained artists combined the design of the five flap dress popular at the time with a French fashion gown. With a slimmer silhouette and more fashionable style, model Nguyen Thi Hau wore the the artists’ creation in a spread for Today newspaper. Soon after, the modern ao dai became a symbol of femininity and style for Vietnamese women and a staple of high fashion in the country. From 1960 to 1975, the ao dai was a signature outfit for southern Vietnamese women.
During the tumultuous years after the war, however, the Western-influenced ao dai was all but banned for its connection to what was coined “capitalist decadence”. The ao dai disappeared from everyday fashion for nearly two decades after the war — replaced instead by the looser fitting and older styled version worn mostly at weddings and formal events — until its re-emergence into the wardrobes of Vietnamese women in the 1980s. Beginning as simply a uniform for high school girls, the ao dai slowly began making a comeback as the choice style for formal occasions and traditional ceremonies.
The Ao Dai Today
Today, the ao dai holds both traditional significance and hints of modern styling. Although the silhouette remains almost the same, modern ao dai are often designed with shorter sleeves, scooping necklines and skirts cut shorter, sometimes to the knee rather than the traditional floor length. Even now, the ao dai is common for weddings, formal events and school uniforms.
And while the ao dai is worn by Vietnamese women of all ages, colours have significance for women of different status and age. White and pastels are usually reserved for younger and unmarried women to symbolize innocence and purity, while older women will often wear soft pastel colours. Married women often wear deeper, richer colours like red, orange or black.
The ao dai is not just a symbol of Vietnamese culture and style – it’s a modern testament to Vietnam’s fascinating and varied history. Most ao dai are custom tailored to achieve what is one of the most flattering fits in fashion. As a souvenir, a high quality ao dai is sure to cost more cash than other trinkets and keepsakes, but is a perfect opportunity to take home a piece of Vietnam’s history that continues to be an integral part of the country’s culture, traditions and pride.
There more culture to explore in beautiful Vietnam than just the ao dai. Experience the very best of Vietnam on a 12-day journey to the country’s highlights!