One of our most unforgettable images of the ao dai is probably the one worn by Lea Salonga as Kim in the musical Miss Saigon, which premiered in London in 1989. It made the Vietnamese national costume a vision of feminine grace that the American G.I. character Chris could not resist.
Worn in tourist photos with the conical non la hat, the ao dai (literally “long shirt,” pronounced “ow zai” in the north and “ow yai” in the south) consists of a long silk tunic with mandarin collar and a close-fitting bodice that splits from the waist, partnered with loose pants. The garment is worn by both men and women and is a popular uniform for civil servants, tour guides, hotel and restaurant staff, and high school students. It’s also seen at weddings, religious rituals, and special occasions.
On New Year’s Day at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi, we saw many wearing it, including a stunning, bejeweled matron who wore it with a fur bolero to shield herself from the morning chill. For the coming Tet Vietnamese New Year, it will also be worn in celebrations all over the country as a symbol of Vietnamese identity.
With a 300-year evolution, the slinky outfit did not always look this way. Just like our terno, it’s a product of history. Whereas we underwent Spanish and American colonization, the Vietnamese experienced Chinese and French occupation, adopting influences from the two and making it uniquely their own. Prior to the 15th century, women typically wore a vay (skirt) and yem (halter top), sometimes covered by an open-necked, baggy tunic (au tu than) with four long panels, the front two tied or belted at the waist.
From 1407 to 1408, under Chinese Ming Dynasty occupation, women were forced to wear Chinese-style pants in line with Confucian standards of decorum. But after regaining independence, Vietnam’s Le Dynasty (1428-1788) could only haphazardly impose the policy, so skirts and halter tops remained the norm.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Vietnam was divided into two regions, with the Nguyen family ruling the south. To distinguish their subjects from northerners, Nguyen lords ordered their subjects to wear Chinese-style trousers with long, front-buttoning tunics. After the Nguyens gained control of the whole country in 1802, the conservative Confucian Emperor Minh Mang banned women’s skirts on aesthetic and moral grounds.
For the next century, precursors to the modern ao dai became popular in cities and at the royal court in Hue, as well as for holidays and festivals in the countryside. It consisted of pants and a loose-fitting top with a standup collar and a diagonal closure that ran from the neck to the armpit, inspired by Chinese and Manchu garments. There were regional variations and elites would layer several ao dai of different colors, with the neck left open to display the layers.
It was in the 1930s when the look would achieve its present silhouette that would make it the flattering, instantly recognizable piece that the world would associate with Vietnam. Under the French from 1887 to 1954, the country’s intelligentsia and an emerging bourgeoisie tried to adopt progressive elements of Western modernity while resisting colonialism and preserving select aspects of their heritage. Tu Luc Van Doan (Self-Reliance Literary Group) was comprised of such individuals who wanted to fashion a modern, “new woman.”
To achieve this, Hanoi artist Nguyen Cat Tuong, also known as Lemur, was tasked with creating the new ao dai, inspired by French fashion. The tops were light-colored, close-fitting tunics with longer panels, puffy sleeves, asymmetrical lace collars, buttoned cuffs, scalloped hems, and darts at the waist and chest that required the use of a brassiere or corset. The pants were flared and white, with snugly tailored hips.
This contemporary version would mirror the evolution of the Chinese cheongsam of the same period when indigenous elements would blend with Western tailoring and aesthetics of revealing rather than concealing the shape of the body. It would be stamped in the national consciousness as the country’s last empress, Nam Phuong, would wear it regularly and create a fashion craze for the look that would be associated with style and sophistication.
With the end of French colonialism in 1954, the country was divided into North and South, with Northern Communist leaders criticizing the outfit as bourgeois, colonial and impractical for manual labor although it would still be worn for special occasions.
In the capitalist south, however, experimentation continued, with the likes of the de facto First Lady, Madame Nhu (Tran Le Xuan, wife of Ngô Dinh Nhu, the brother and chief adviser to the bachelor President Ngô Dình Dięm) becoming notorious in the 1950s and 1960s for the skin-baring necklines of her ao dais. The Communist leader Nguyen Thi Binh would also bring it international renown, although with the more conservative version, worn as a representative of the Viet Cong during the Paris Peace Accords, which ended America’s war in Vietnam in 1973.
With the reunification of Vietnam in 1975 under Communist rule, the southern ao dai was pronounced as decadent and a simpler, utilitarian style was promoted, but this austerity lasted only till the 1990s, when economic reforms and improved living standards would revive it as a luxury garment recognized internationally as a symbol of Vietnamese identity. Ao dai contests were held and Miss Vietnam’s blue brocade version would win the prize for national costume at Tokyo’s Miss International pageant, further promoting pride in their national attire. Its global status has made it an inspiration for designers like Ralph Lauren, Jil Sander, and Giorgio Armani, who have referenced it in their collections.
Vietnamese fashion designers continue to explore contemporary versions of the ao dai today, collaborating with foreign designers, as well as having nationalist versions promoting previous historical styles. It has definitely evolved with the times, even going genderless when a school teacher, Ho Phan Ngoc, wore a ladies’ ao dai last March while teaching his class at a high school in Nghe An Province, to celebrate International Women’s Day. Criticized by many, he nonetheless posed elegantly for photographers, showing how the national attire can indeed elicit both pride and grace.