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Ao dai

Ao dai
A model wearing áo dài at a fashion show in Vietnam walking down the catwalk, September 2013
Type Dress
Material Silk
Place of origin Vietnam

The áo dài is a Vietnamese national costume, now most commonly worn by women. In its current form, it is a tight-fitting silk tunic worn over pants. The word is pronounced [ʔǎːw zâːj] in the North and [ʔǎːw jâːj] in the South. Áo classifies the item as a piece of clothing on the upper part of the body.[1] Dài means "long".[2]

The word "ao dai" was originally applied to the outfit worn at the court of the Nguyễn Lords at Huế in the 18th century. This outfit evolved into the áo ngũ thân, a five-paneled aristocratic gown worn in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Inspired by Paris fashions, Nguyễn Cát Tường and other artists associated with Hanoi University redesigned the ngũ thân as a modern dress in the 1920s and 1930s.[3] The updated look was promoted by the artists and magazines of Tự Lực văn đoàn (Self-Reliant Literary Group) as a national costume for the modern era. In the 1950s, Saigon designers tightened the fit to produce the version worn by Vietnamese women today.[3] The dress was extremely popular in South Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s. On Tết and other occasions, Vietnamese men may wear an áo gấm (brocade robe), a version of the ao dai made of thicker fabric.

Academic commentary on the ao dai emphasizes the way the dress ties feminine beauty to Vietnamese nationalism, especially in the form of "Miss Ao Dai" pageants, popular both among overseas Vietnamese and in Vietnam itself.[4] "Ao dai" is one of the few Vietnamese words that appear in English-language dictionaries.[nb 1]

Ao dai
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese áo dài
Hán-Nôm 𨱾

Parts of dress

Diagram that shows the parts of an ao dai.
Tà sau: back flap
Young girl wearing ao dai
Nút bấm thân áo: hooks used as fasteners and holes
Ống tay: sleeve
Đường ben: inside seam
Nút móc kết thúc: main hook and hole

Tà trước: front flap

Khuy cổ: collar button
Cổ áo: collar
Đường may: seam
Ống tay: sleeve
Kích (eo): waist

The ao dai can be worn with a nón lá (conical leaf hat), a style associated with Huế. On weddings and other formal occasions, a circular headgear called a khăn đóng is worn.


Early Modern Vietnam

For centuries, peasant women typically wore a halter top (yếm) underneath a blouse or overcoat, alongside a skirt (váy).[5] Aristocrats favored less revealing clothes.[6] In 1744, Lord Nguyễn Phúc Khoát of Huế decreed that both men and women at his court wear trousers and a gown with buttons down the front.[3][nb 2] Writer Lê Quý Đôn described the newfangled outfit as an áo dài (long garment).[nb 3] The members of the southern court were thus distinguished from the courtiers of the Trịnh Lords in Hanoi, who wore cross-collared tunics and long skirts.[citation needed]

19th century

The áo tứ thân, a traditional four-paneled gown, evolved into the five-paneled áo ngũ thân in the early 19th century.[7] Ngũ is Sino-Vietnamese for "five." It refers not only to the number of panels, but also to the five elements in oriental cosmology. The áo ngũ thân had a loose fit and sometimes had wide sleeves. Wearers could display their prosperity by putting on multiple layers of fabric, which at that time was costly. Despite Vietnam's tropical climate, northern aristocrats were known to wear three to five layers.

The áo ngũ thân had two flaps sewn together in the back, two flaps sewn together in the front, and a "baby flap" hidden underneath the main front flap. The gown appeared to have two-flaps with slits on both sides, features preserved in the later ao dai. Compared to a modern ao dai, the front and back flaps were much broader and the fit looser. It had a high collar and was buttoned in the same fashion as a modern ao dai. Women could wear the dress with the top few buttons undone, revealing a glimpse of their yếm underneath.

20th century

Modernization of style

File:VN Phat Diem tango7174.jpg
Our Lady, Phat Diem Cathedral

Huế's Đồng Khánh Girl's High School, which opened in 1917, was widely praised for the ao dai uniform worn by its students.[8] The first modernized ao dai appeared at a Paris fashion show in 1921. In 1930, Hanoi artist Cát Tường, also known as Le Mur, designed a dress inspired by the áo ngũ thân and by Paris fashions. It reached to the floor and fit the curves of the body by using darts and a nipped-in waist.[9] When fabric became inexpensive, the rationale for multiple layers and thick flaps disappeared. Modern texile manufacture allows for wider panels, eliminating the need to sew narrow panels together. The áo dài Le Mur, or "trendy" ao dai, created a sensation when model Nguyễn Thị Hậu wore it for a feature published by the newspaper Today in January 1935.[10] The style was promoted by the artists of Tự Lực văn đoàn ("Self-Reliant Literary Group") as a national costume for the modern era.[11] The painter Lê Phô introduced several popular styles of ao dai beginning in 1934. Such Westernized garments temporarily disappeared during World War II (1939–45).

In the 1950s, Saigon designers tightened the fit of the ao dai to create the version commonly seen today.[3] Trần Kim of Thiết Lập Tailors and Dũng of Dũng Tailors created a dress with raglan sleeves and a diagonal seam that runs from the collar to the underarm.[3] Madame Nhu, first lady of South Vietnam, popularized a collarless version beginning in 1958. The ao dai was most popular from 1960 to 1975.[12] A brightly colored áo dài hippy was introduced in 1968.[13] The áo dài mini, a version designed for practical use and convenience, had slits that extended above the waist and panels that reached only to the knee.[9]

Communist period

The ao dai has always been more common in the South than in the North. The communists, who gained power in the North in 1954 and in the South in the 1975, had conflicted feelings about the ao dai. They praised it as a national costume and one was worn to the Paris Peace Conference (1968–73) by Vietcong negotiator Nguyễn Thị Bình.[14] Yet Westernized versions of the dress and those associated with "decadent" Saigon of the 1960s and early 1970s were condemned.[15] Economic crisis, famine, and war with Cambodia combined to make the 1980s a fashion low point.[7] The ao dai was rarely worn except at weddings and other formal occasions, with the older, looser-fitting style preferred.[15] Overseas Vietnamese, meanwhile, kept tradition alive with "Miss Ao Dai" pageants (Hoa Hậu Áo Dài), the most notable one held annually in Long Beach, California.[3]

The ao dai experienced a revival beginning in late 1980s, when state enterprise and schools began adopting the dress as a uniform again.[3] In 1989, 16,000 Vietnamese attended a Miss Ao Dai Beauty Contest held in Ho Chi Minh City.[16] When the Miss International Pageant in Tokyo gave its "Best National Costume" award to an ao dai-clad Trường Quỳnh Mai in 1995, Thời Trang Trẻ (New Fashion Magazine) gushed that Vietnam's "national soul" was "once again honored."[17] An "ao dai craze" followed that lasted for several years and led to wider use of the dress as a school uniform.[18]

Present day

No longer deemed politically controversial, ao dai fashion design is supported by the Vietnamese government

No longer deemed politically controversial, ao dai fashion design is supported by the Vietnamese government.[7] It is often called áo dài Việt Nam to link it to patriotic feelings. Designer Le Si Hoang is a celebrity in Vietnam and his shop in Saigon is the place to visit for those who admire the dress.[7] In Hanoi, tourists get fitted with ao dai on Luong Van Can Street.[19] The elegant city of Huế in the central region is known for its ao dai, nón lá (leaf hats), and well-dressed women.

The ao dai is now standard for weddings, for celebrating Tết and for other formal occasions. A plain white ao dai is a common high school school uniform in the South. Companies often require their female staff to wear uniforms that include the ao dai, so flight attendants, receptionists, bank female staff, restaurant staff, and hotel workers in Vietnam may be seen wearing it.

File:Ao dai le hoi.JPG
Girls wearing Ao dai

The most popular style of ao dai fits tightly around the wearer's upper torso, emphasizing her bust and curves. Although the dress covers the entire body, it is thought to be provocative, especially when it is made of thin fabric. "The ao dai covers everything, but hides nothing", according to one saying.[14] The dress must be individually fitted and usually requires several weeks for a tailor to complete. An ao dai costs about $200 in the United States and about $40 in Vietnam.[20]

"Symbolically, the ao dai invokes nostalgia and timelessness associated with a gendered image of the homeland for which many Vietnamese people throughout the diaspora yearn", wrote Nhi T. Lieu, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin.[4] The difficulties of working while wearing an ao dai link the dress to frailty and innocence, she wrote.[4] Vietnamese writers who favor the use of the ao dai as a school uniform cite the inconvenience of wearing it as an advantage, a way of teaching students feminine behavior such as modesty, caution, and a refined manner.[18]

The ao dai is featured in an array of Vietnam-themed or related movies. In Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Robin Williams's character is wowed by ao dai-clad women when he first arrives in Saigon. The 1992 films Indochine and The Lover inspired several international fashion houses to design ao dai collections,[21] including Prada's SS08 collection and a Georgio Armani collection. In the Vietnamese film The White Silk Dress (2007), an ao dai is the sole legacy that the mother of a poverty-stricken family has to pass on to her daughters.[22] The Hanoi City Complex, a 65-story building now under construction, will have an ao dai-inspired design.[23] Vietnamese designers created ao dai for the contestants in the Miss Universe beauty contest, which was held July 2008 in Nha Trang, Vietnam.[24]


See also

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  1. ^ "Ao dai" appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary (2004), and the Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2006). Other Vietnamese words that appear include "Tet", "Vietminh", "Vietcong", and "pho" (rice noodles).[1]
  2. ^ A court historian described the dress in Huế as follows: Outside court, men and women wear gowns with straight collars and short sleeves. The sleeves are large or small depending on the wearer. There are seams on both sides running down from the sleeve, so the gown is not open anywhere. Men may wear a round collar and a short sleeve for more convenience. "Thường phục thì đàn ông, đàn bà dùng áo cổ đứng ngắn tay, cửa ống tay rộng hoặc hẹp tùy tiện. Áo thì hai bên nách trở xuống phải khâu kín liền, không được xẻ mở. Duy đàn ông không muốn mặc áo cổ tròn ống tay hẹp cho tiện khi làm việc thì được phép ..." (from Đại Nam Thực Lục [Records of Đại Nam])
  3. ^ Lê Quý Đôn, Phủ Biên Tạp Lục [Frontier Chronicles] (1775-76), Lord Nguyễn Phúc Khoát wrote the first page in the history of the áo dài. "Chúa Nguyễn Phúc Khoát đã viết những trang sử đầu cho chiếc áo dài như vậy".


  1. ^ Áo is derived from a Middle Chinese word meaning "padded coat". "ao dai", definition of ao dai in Oxford dictionary (British & World English). Retrieved on 3 November 2014.
  2. ^ Phan Van Giuong, Tuttle Compact Vietnamese Dictionary: Vietnamese-English English-Vietnamese (2008), p. 76. "dài adj. long, lengthy."
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Ellis, Claire (1996), "Ao Dai: The National Costume", Things Asian, retrieved 2008-07-02 
  4. ^ a b c Lieu, Nhi T. (2000). "Remembering "the Nation" through pageantry: femininity and the politics of Vietnamese womanhood in the "Hoa Hau Ao Dai" contest". Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies (University of Nebraska Press via JSTOR) 21 (1-2): 127–151. doi:10.2307/3347038. 
  5. ^ Leshkowich, p. 89.
  6. ^ Leshkowich, p. 90.
  7. ^ a b c d Valverde, Caroline Kieu (2006), "The History and Revival of the Vietnamese Ao Dai", NHA magazine, retrieved 2008-07-02 
  8. ^ Kauffner, Peter. "Ao dai: The allure and grace of Vietnam's traditional dress", Asia Insights: Destination Asia, September–October 2010
  9. ^ a b Leshkowich p. 91.
  10. ^ "A Fashion Revolution", Ninh Thuận P&T, archived from the original on June 23, 2008, retrieved 2008-07-02 . For a picture of the áo dài Le Mur, see Ao Dai — The Soul of Vietnam.
  11. ^ "Vietnamese Ao dai history", Aodai4u, retrieved 2008-07-02 
  12. ^ Elmore, Mick (September 17, 1997). "Ao Dai Enjoys A Renaissance Among Women : In Vietnam, A Return to Femininity". International Herald Tribune. 
  13. ^ Bich Vy-Gau Gi, Ao Dai — The Soul of Vietnam. Retrieved on 2 July 2008.
  14. ^ a b "Vietnamese AoDai", Overlandclub. Retrieved on July 2, 2008.
  15. ^ a b Leshkowich p. 92.
  16. ^ Vu, Lan (2002), "Ao Dai Viet Nam", Viettouch, retrieved 2008-07-03 
  17. ^ Leshkowich p. 79.
  18. ^ a b Leshkowich p. 97.
  19. ^ "Traditional ao dai grace foreign bodies". VNS. December 20, 2004. Retrieved July 29, 2008. 
  20. ^ "Ao Dai Couture", Nha magazine., retrieved August 12, 2008 
  21. ^ Ao Dai — Vietnamese Plus Size Fashion Statement, retrieved July 14, 2008 
  22. ^ "Vietnam send Ao Lua Ha Dong to Pusan Film Festival", VietNamNet Bridge, 2006, retrieved July 13, 2008 
  23. ^ Tuấn Cường. ""Nóc nhà" Hà Nội sẽ cao 65 tầng". Tuoi Tre (in Vietnamese). Retrieved 2009-04-26. 
  24. ^ "Miss Universe contestants try on ao dai", Bridge, 2008, archived from the original on 2008-07-01, retrieved 2008-07-02 

External links

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