When it comes to the sensual beauty and elegance of Vietnam, nothing better represents its feminine appeal than the flowing, silk ao dai. Throughout its nearly 300-year history, this national dress has undergone several changes before arriving at the modern version, which typically consists of a long, form-fitting tunic with slits along the sides worn over thin white trousers.
Ao dai (the D is pronounced as consonant letter Y in the southern Vietnamese dialect or Z in the north) literally translates to long shirt. Though there is both a male and female version of ao dai, it should be noted that the former has changed little over the centuries and rarely seen outside of weddings (pictured below-right) or Tet Lunar New Year.
The women’s ao dai, on the other hand, has evolved greatly while also garnering international acclaim in recent years.
A Brief History of the Ao Dai
Though scholars disagree on whether the modern ao dai has its roots in southern or northern Vietnam, which were separate kingdoms in the 18th century, both regions did have costumes which gained prominence at the same time. A fair compromise might be to say trousers and term ao dai is derived from the south, while the long, womanly tunic came from the north.
Cham Ao Dai of the South
In 1744, Nguyen Phuc Khoat, ruler of southern Vietnam, decreed that all nobility, male and female, must don a very loose-fitting, front-buttoned gown and trousers. In order to curry favour with the native Cham people, the ao dai drew influences such as colors and patterns from their centuries-old attire.
Ao Tu Than and Ao Ngu Than of the North
Simultaneous to the Cham-inspired ao dai were two styles of dress in northern Vietnam. The 4-part ao tu than was worn by working class women and comprised of loose outer tunic, long skirt, an undergarment shirt and cloth sash tied around the waist. The shirt is open in front, similar to a bathrobe, while darker colours were preferred due to its likelihood of getting dirty through manual labour.
Conversely, women from high society sported the 5-part ao ngu than (pictured above-left). Unlike its lower class counterpart, the ao ngu had a closed front, brighter colours, raised collar and did not require a cloth belt. The most crucial element which would be adapted into the modern ao dai were the hanging flaps in front and back, along with the trademark side slits.
The Modern Ao Dai
If birth of the modern ao dai could be attributed to a single person, look no further than Hanoian fashion designer, Nguyen Cat Tuong, in the 1930s. Fresh out of Fine Arts school, Le Mur (his French name) fused together elements of the traditional southern ao dai, northern ao ngu than with French haute couture.
Rather than concealing the shape of the body underneath, his sleeker, form-fitting design accentuated the wearer’s curves. Other notable features include a various western-style collars, puffy sleeves, extended length and white trousers. Unfortunately, this style of ao dai was deemed a bit too provocative and inappropriate for the era, and after a few years the trend had fallen to the wayside.
Kuckily, Le Mur’s ao dai would make a resurgence a couple decades later thanks to a handful of tailors from Saigon. Leading the charge was a man from Da Kao district named Dung, whose signature enhancements include straight, raglan sleeves and diagonal seam running from collar to underarm –features which aid in mobility while also minimizing wrinkles. Both he and successive designers continued to tighten the fit for added sensuality.
During the 1960s, as the U.S. had a larger diplomatic role in South Vietnam, ao dai started to gain traction on the global level when the western media photographed several wives of high ranking officials. Most notable was Madame Nhu, the de facto First Lady of the country (sister-in-law of the unmarried President Ngo Dinh Diem), and her low-cut, collarless ao dai which had made the front page of several publications.
Late 1980s to Present Day
The popularity of the ao dai once again diminished over the post-war decades as the country fell on hard times. Its final comeback occurred during the late 80s and 90s when Miss Ao Dai beauty pageants were held both locally and abroad. Following the 1995 Miss International Pageant, in which the Vietnamese contestant was awarded Best National Costume for her ao dai, many schools and organizations decided to reinstate it as their uniform. Since then, it has forever cemented itself as part of the fabric of Vietnam.
For most, ao dai is generally reserved for special occasions, though today it can typically be seen worn on a daily basis by school teachers, bank tellers and those working in civil or hospitality-related positions.
Getting Your Own Custom-Made Ao Dai in Vietnam
As the rest of the world becomes more exposed to ao dai, tourists are increasingly adding this keepsake item to their bucket list while visiting Vietnam. It cannot be purchased straight off the rack, however, as its characteristic tight fit will require the ao dai to be custom-tailored. Nowadays, the variations are seemingly endless and the garment can come in a range of lengths, fabrics, collar types, buttons, colours, patterns and embroideries.
The three cities with an abundance of foreigner-friendly tailors would be Hanoi in the north, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in the south or Hoi An in Vietnam’s central region. We highly recommend Hoi An if staying there at least two nights, as the city has a rich history in the silk trade while tailors offer competitive prices, fast turnaround times and high-quality workmanship.
For passengers on Heritage Line’s lower Mekong River cruises between Saigon and Cambodia, the Bao Tang Ao Dai Museum offers an insightful look into the history of the ao dai as well as the sewing process and roughly 150 pieces from different time periods on display.
Ao ngu than (top-left): Pierre Dieulefils (photographer) via Wikimedia Commons