Vietnamese is a pretty complex language, so when I heard I was going to be visiting an áo dàiexhibition on my trip to Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, I had no idea what I would be seeing, hearing, experiencing or I thought even tasting!
It was a very pleasant surprise to discover though that áo dài is Vietnam’s national costume, now most commonly worn by women, with in its current form, a tight-fitting silk tunic worn over pants.
The translation of áo dài is actually pretty straightforward with áo meaning shirt and dài meaning long, with the word áo dài said originally to have described the outfit worn at the court of the Nguyễn Lords at Huế in the 18th century.
An updated áo dài was promoted by the artists and magazines of Tự Lực văn đoàn (Self-Reliant Literary Group) as a national costume for the modern era and in the 1950s, Saigon designers tightened the fit to produce the version worn by Vietnamese women today, with the dress extremely popular in South Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s.
With a very long history indeed, with all revealed in the exhibition, it is said that áo dài evolved into the áo ngũ thân, a five-paneled aristocratic gown worn in the 19th and early 20th centuries, then 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 and it has continued to evolve ever since with the áo dài now standard for weddings, for celebrating Tết and for other formal occasions.
Female teachers, mostly from high school to below and female students in common high school in the South wear áo dài with generally students wearing plain white with some small patterns such as flowers and also companies often require their female staff to wear uniforms that include the áo dài including flight attendants, receptionists, bank female staff, restaurant and hotel staff.
Today, the most popular style of áo dài fits tightly around the wearer’s upper torso, emphasizing the bust and curves and although the dress covers the entire body, it is thought to be provocative, especially when it is made of thin fabric, described by one Vietnamese saying as “The áo dài covers everything, but hides nothing”,
The áo dài remains very popular all over Vietnam, but more so in the South with the áo dài said to tie feminine beauty to Vietnamese nationalism, with Miss Ao Dai pageants held not only in Vietnam but also overseas.
The incredibly detailed history of the áo dài can now be experienced and seen in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City at the áo dài exhibition, which I was very fortunate to visit and I very much recommend if you are in Ho Chi Minh City, but in the meantime, to check out áo dài click on the video below.
An on location from ITE HCMC 2016 report by John Alwyn-Jones