It’s hard to go more than a few hours in Vietnam without seeing groups of women clad in flowing silk costumes. As iconic as the country’s national noodle dish, and the bamboo conical hat, the áo dài (pronounced ow zai) is the most recognisable symbol of Vietnamese tradition, retaining aplace in society for centuries.
Since its emergence in its earliest forms during the 18th Century, the áo dài has developed from an aristocratic gown to one of the most iconic symbols of Vietnamese culture and heritage in daily life.
The áo dài can be traced back to the 18th century when Lord Nguyen of Hue City decreed that men and women at his court should be adorned with trousers, and a gown with buttons down the front.
Splits in the gown extend above the waist, making it comfortable and easy to wear. Although virtually the whole body is swathed in soft flowing fabric, these splits can give a sensual glimpse of a bare midriff.
Ao Dai’s are made individually to create the most graceful style possible. The trousers should reach the soles of the feet and flow gracefully over the floor.
Tailoring must ensure the wearer’s freedom of movement. Despite being a long robe, the áo dài must be cool to wear. Synthetic or silk fabrics are preferred, as they don’t crush and are quick drying
Colour is indicative of the wearer’s age and status. Young girls wear white, fully-lined outfits, symbolizing their purity. Older, unmarried girls, adopt soft pastel shades. Only married women wear áo dài in strong, rich colours, usually over white or black trousers. However, the áo dài is rarely seen in places where manual work is undertaken.
The 90’s saw a fashionable resurgence of the áo dài, and today it is common attire for female students as well as female staff at offices and hotels.
Traditionally, the áo dài has become the preferred dress on formal occasions. Most Vietnamese people make new ones to celebrate Tet, the Lunar New Year, in order to celebrate a fresh beginning to the year.
In the past, áo dài were lined. The two layers of fabric formed a set, or kép. On formal occasions, another light garment, always white, was worn under the kép to form a triple set of layers called mớ ba. From the mid 1950s, the áo dài was simplified and the kép layer removed.
Nowadays, the áo dài has been shortened,
falling just below the knee.
Although the silhouette remains the same, there is a hint of modern styling, with shorter sleeves and scooping necklines. Men wear a similar outfit also called áo dài which is shorter to knee length, and looser fitting. They rarely wear the long dress except for ceremonial occasions such as weddings or funerals.
The áo dài is not just a symbol of Vietnamese culture and style, but a modern testament to Vietnam’s fascinating and varied history.
TEXT & PHOTOS BY BARRY J ATKINSON
ILLUSTRATIONS BY THEO