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By: Le Si Hoan

Áo dài, the traditional attire of Vietnamese women, is the ultimate embodiment of personal femininity and national pride. The founder of the Áo dài Museum and a designer known for his award-winning áo dài brand since 1989, artist  Le Si Hoang  explains how the áo dài evolved through time.

According to carvings at the Ngoc Lu Bronze Museum that are several thousand years old, Viet women once wore attire with two split flaps. However, no one knows  exactly how the original áo dài was invented and what it looked like.

In Saigon in the early 20th century, women’s clothing featured a consertivative áo dài coupled with refined jewelry. At home, women put on bà ba tunics, but when going to market they donned an áo dài, and carried a rattan or bamboo basket. The áo dài was woven of popular black fabric.

The frequent wearing of áo dài was a habit of Southern women in earlier times. At rural marketplaces more than a century ago, a large number of vendors and even shoppers wore an áo dài of coarse linen. The áo dài was both reserved and revealing of its wearers’ aesthetic attributes. Eventually, differences may have arisen from the wealthy favoring silk fabrics while the less well-off were content with the coarse áo dài.

The primitive form of the oldest áo dài was the lapsing tunic (giao lãnh). Once put on, its two collars rested against each other, surfaced over the inner bodice and were tied with a loose belt. Ancient people walked barefoot, and the wealthy put on wooden sandals, slippers or boots. The lapsing tunic was followed by the five flap tunic, with stiff collar and buttons. Five flapped áo dài include two sheets of fabric joined together to make a single frontal flap, with a side flap in the lower right. The four external flaps represent the four parents: a woman’s biological parents and her in-laws, and the fifth flap represents the wearer herself. This tunic always has five buttons symbolizing Vietnam’s mandates, namely humanism, etiquette, filial piety, wisdom, and prestige. The five flapped áo dài may involve both narrow and wide sleeves.

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