If you travel on a Vietnam Airlines flight, you’ll most likely see female flight attendants dressed in a turquoise tunic top and white pants. These are a modification of Vietnamese traditional costume: áo dài. Scholars still debate on when the gown (which always comes in a set: a top and a pair of pants) first appeared, but most agree that Nguyễn Phúc Khoát, a Nguyễn lord who ruled Southern Vietnam in the 18th century, played a large part in introducing early version of áo dài to the public. Even though áo dài is also worn by men, its design for women is more varied, following changes sparked by social, historical and even political reasons. It has become synonymous with Vietnamese femininity, a source of inspiration for many poets, writers and musicians.
How did áo dài evolve over the years?
Why does it represent the virtues of Vietnamese women?
Let’s find out.
Nguyễn Phúc Khoát and the five-panel gown (Áo ngũ thân)
In 1744, Lord Nguyễn Phúc Khoát was crowned the ruler of Southern Vietnam, while the north was under Trinh lords. Lord Nguyễn made a series of reforms in his regime, one of which was a change in clothing for his courtiers and subjects. As opposed to their Northern counterparts, who wore long robes – a garment with origins from China, those from the South donned trousers, covered by a silk gown with five panels. That explained its name: áo ngũ thân (give-panel gown).
Áo ngũ thân consists of five flaps: four main flaps representing the wearer’s parents and their in-laws and a hidden flap representing themselves. There are five buttons, made from metal, pearl or wood, each of which stands for a Vietnamese virtue: compassion, commitment, respect, sensibility and reliability. The gown has a loose fit, with wide sleeves and panels. The accompanying pants are often in dark fabric.
Nguyễn Cát Tường and the Le Mur áo dài
In 1930, Nguyễn Cát Tường (also known as Le Mur), a painter, blended elements of the Western culture with the traditional gown. His creation was called Le Mur áo dài, the closest version to the modern áo dài today. He reduced the number of flaps to two and tightened the form of the gown at the waist, allowing it to trace the wearer’s curve. He also added Western features such as puffy sleeves, heart-shaped collar, as well as used more colorful fabrics. However, this trend only lasted a few years. Backlash from a conservative Vietnamese society decried it as too sexy and thus inappropriate for women.
In 1934, artist Lê Phổ removed all Western influences from the previous design and simplified various components of áo dài’s predecessor to make it more comfortable for women. He kept the neckline high, as well as retained the length of the sleeves and panels. The form, while tighter than the original five-panel gown, was still on the loose side. Many women welcomed these changes, calling them a perfect harmony of the old and the new. They began to wear áo dài more often, from running daily errands to special events. The fabrics varied from simple, plain colors to those with elaborate patterns to match the occasions. White áo dài was (and still is) the uniform for female high-school students.
Vietnam’s war-torn history and political upheavals continued to shape the perceptions of ao dài. It fell in and out of fashion, and even became a taboo. It was not until late 20th century that the garment regained its popularity. In 1995, Trương Quỳnh Mai was the first Vietnamese woman to compete in Miss International. She won the title “Best National Costume” with a blue silk áo dài.
Around the same time, fashion designer Sĩ Hoàng breathed a new life into áo dài’s fabric, adding hand-drawn details from folklores to traditional blank soft canvas. Through his works, he introduced the richness of Vietnamese culture to an international audience. He opened the first Áo Dài Museum in Saigon in 2015.
Nowadays, áo dài is the uniform for many working professionals in schools, banks, government offices and the hospitality industry. Women also wear it to temples, churches, or special events where there is a solemn atmosphere. For weddings, brides don bright red or fuchsia silk gowns with floral or abstract patterns and a matching round headdress.
Those who seek a fashion statement wear modernized áo dài with knee-length panels, short sleeves together with jeans or leggings. Instead of silk, they use more elastic fabrics to allow easier movements.
The symbol of Vietnamese beauty
“It covers everything but hides nothing,” is often used to describe the beauty of áo dài. With its length, this garment covers from neck to ankle. At the same time, it is form-fitting, showing the woman’s body in a tasteful and discreet way. It represents elegance and humility – treasured qualities that Vietnamese women are raised on.
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