Each nation has its unique and traditional costume which represents the nation’s image and distinguishes itself from others. The Japanese are proud of their “Kimono”, Korean is famous for their “Hanbok”, Cambodian is popular for their “Sampot” and Vietnam is no exception. Ao dai has played an important role in Vietnam history and culture for centuries, spreading the national spirit of Vietnam all over the world and becoming a symbol of the elegant beauty of Vietnamese people.
The history of Ao dai
Undergoing hundreds of years with many variations, Ao dai has become a distinctive symbol of Vietnam tradition and are recognized as Vietnam’s national dress. Ao dai has come to be so popular that in the English dictionary, the original name “Ao dai” is kept, along with an explanation “A Vietnamese woman’s long-sleeved tunic with ankle-length panels at the front and back, worn over trousers”.
- Before Nguyen Dynasty
In fact, nobody knows for certain where and when Ao dai began to take shape like the dress we used to see today, but this conclusion can be drawn from a reliable source of historical background. Ao dai is believed to make its first appearance in Vietnam history and culture around the year 38-42 AD and was wore honorably in the resistance against Han people to claim independence for Vietnam by Hai Ba Trung (Trung sisters).
- Nguyen Dynasty: King Nguyen Phuc Khoat
Nguyen Dynasty Costume (Source: Google)
Although there is a high likelihood Ao dai was born in China, it was not until 1744 that this unique dress put a firm and unchangeable mark on Vietnamese society. At that time, Emperor Nguyen Phuc Khoat was crowned and ruled the Southern land. The north was ruled by Trinh Lord in Hanoi and their people dressed themselves in the so-called “giao lĩnh” (gowns), which bears some similarities with Han people’s. In order to differentiate between the North and South, Emperor Nguyen Phuc Khoat ordered his troops to wear long pants inside a silk shirt.
- 19th century: Five-part dress
The common costumes of Vietnamese people in the year 1800 consisted of 5 parts: two back parts, two front parts and one part hidden under the front. This is also the first design that has been opened from downward to show wearer’s waistline, one of the special features of today’s Ao dai. Unlike the present style, the five-part dress was loose and shorter.
- 20th century: Western influence
Ao dai Le Mur (Source: Google)
When France dominated Vietnam in 1930s, Western culture started to invade the indigenous fashion trends. The greatest improvement of Ao dai took place when a Vietnamese woman named “Cát Tường” (Le Mur) brought a lot of interesting changes to this traditional costume. She reduced the size of Ao dai to fit body shape of a Vietnamese woman, raised the epaulettes, lengthened the flaps of the shirt to the ground, and experienced new colors. In other words, Le Mur made Ao dai sexier, as well as more subtle and attractive, enhancing the charming and discreet beauty of Vietnamese women.
Moreover, in the late 50s, US ruled over Vietnam and Ao dai once again undergone a few dramatic changes. In 1958, Mrs. Tran Le Xuan – wife of the president’s political adviser – made herself stand out by wearing Ao dai with gloves, along with a V-neck and short sleeves. Even though this modern design was complimented by a number of people because of its delicacy, it was criticized to be lack of aesthetic value and was strictly banned to wear among capitalists by the government.
At the same time, Ao dai set its first foot in the South and a Saigon designer called Tran Kim Dung again made a reform to add “áo bà ba” (loose-fitting blouse’s sleeves). This is a highlight with a diagonal cross running from under arm to collar, which made it more comfortable and flexible for women to wear.
In short, the shape of Ao dai has been preserved from the late 1970s to early 1980s, when it became fitter with high collars and flared pants until now.
The position of Ao dai in Vietnam history and culture
Standing proudly over hundreds of years, Vietnam traditional costume Ao dai has successfully preserved its aesthetic value and is recognized as Vietnamese national dress.
Besides appearing in all beauty contests of Vietnam, Ao dai is an indispensable part of Vietnamese beauties when taking part in international events and contests and is warmly welcomed with respect and favor. For example, Ao dai has been chosen as costumes for the heads of state when participating in APEC Summit 2006 in Hanoi. In Mrs. World Peagant 2009 held in Vietnam, the only difference compared to other contests that have taken place for many years was in the opening section of the final when all contestants appeared in Ao dai of the host country. According to the Chairman of the Organizing Committee of Mrs. World Peagant, Ao dai Vietnam has long received the admiration of many foreign visitors due to its beauty, grace, gentleness and respect of women’s beautiful figure. In addition, Ao dai – covered in its white pure color – is also a symbol of the youth and is often worn by school girls as uniforms or/and at the beginning and the end of a new school year.
Three interesting facts about Ao dai
- The meaning of colors
In the past, the colors of the cloth were considered important because they represented the position of one in a society. Young women were keen on dressing in pure and fresh colors. When they started to grow up, women turn into wearing pastel colors in order to discreetly show that they are single. After marriage, women have the rights to wear darker colors. In addition, there were particular colors for special occasions like purple and blue. Nowadays, Vietnamese women are no longer bound by these rules and they are free to choose their favorite colors to express their personalities and interests.
- The one-and-only fabric
Originally, Ao dai must be sewn in silk to ensure a soft and comfortable fit and promote a quick drying feature when getting wet. Currently, there is a wide variety of materials used to make Ao dai such as chiffon or lace for people to choose based on their interests.
- The only-women-can-wear-Ao-dai rule
There would be a huge mistake to think that Ao dai are designed for women’s use only. Vietnamese men are also seen wearing this national dress in special occasions like wedding or Tet holidays. Although they don’t wear it as often as women do, men – especially the older generations – are in favor of wearing it in order to maintain their tradition.
Throughout the history, Ao dai not only have contributed greatly to the development of Vietnam history and culture and have touched the heart of Vietnamese people through art such as poems and songs, but it’s also proudly and widely acknowledged as Vietnam timeless beauty.