Flowing Like A Summer Breeze
With the regularity of a rising tide, a cloak of heat descends across much of Southeast Asia. Westerners, businessmen and visitors who’ve come to discover its exotic life and hypnotic landscape wilt in the afternoon sun, searching for an escape. No simple paper fan or frosted minty drink is enough to keep the cloying heat at bay. And a lazy ceiling fan only stirs the thick, moist air.
This is the one time you must walk in the shoes of those who call this region home. Don their attire, mimic their actions, adapt their pace and lifestyle. And, for the women, that means slipping into what many consider to be the most feminine, flattering, flowing gown (though worn over long wide-legged trousers) of all time.. the Vietnamese áo dài. Its story follows.
North And South
Let’s start with how you pronounce the name of this absolutely lovely garment. In the northern part of Vietnam, the pronunciation is “ao zai” while in the south, local people say “ao yai”. No matter which way you pronounce it, just know this traditional long-sleeved, high-necked fitted tunic with slits on both sides is drop-dead gorgeous. Gorgeous! And, one can be yours as a souvenir of your visit to Vietnam, should you choose. So, it’s best you learn a bit about this traditional garb because everyone back home will need an explanation from you. So, here goes.
Well, first off, no one actually agrees on the origin of the áo dài. But, this is an oft-told version of what the truth may be. Its probable predecessor was worn one thousand years ago, give or take. What is known is that China held sway over some parts of this area until the 16th century. Someone named Nguyen Phuc Khoái came along dictating that the southern people should wear something to distinguish themselves from their northern rivals, the Trinh Lords. Thus, the áo dài was born.
In the early days, in this case the 18th century, the áo dài was worn by the beautiful women at the Nguyen Court. From its origins in Hue, its popularity grew and the design changed to a 5-paneled gown that was popular with noblemen and members of society’s highest social classes. Fabric was expensive and multiple layers were a visual testimony to the wearer’s wealth.
That all changed in the 1920s when contemporary designers put pencil to sketchpad, pin to silk, and created a more fashionable look that eventually caught the eye of couturiers in Paris. They made it less blousy and much more slinky. Meanwhile, back in Vietnam, young women still wore áo dàis to school (the colors indicated which school though white is still quite common), or for important celebrations like Tet and weddings, for beauty pageants, or in their professional life.
Then, in 1947, Vietnam gained its independence and many people in the north cast off this garment per the March 20, 1947 edict from Ho Chi Minh. It reflected western capitalistic ideals, wasted too much fabric, and impeded people’s ability to work. Some experts say the style became unfashionable in 1954 in the north, then in 1975 in the south.
What’s In A Color? What’s In A Design?
Little girls wear white áo dàis to signify purity, while pastel colors are more popular with teenagers today (probably to match their iPhone covers and Shellac manicures) as well as women who have yet to marry. Following their weddings, married women often wear brightly colored áo dài tunics over either black or white pants that literally sweep the floor. Today, though, many women choose a more comfortable style and have their tailors make their outfits with the tops reaching to only just below the knees. It seems, though, that the billowing pants remain the norm.
The collar design is changing, as well, yet the sleeve cut seems to remain as it has always been, much like a raglan sleeve. Traditionally, the bodice is absolutely formfitting and the slits in the tunic can go up even higher than the wee-wisp of a waist for a little peek-a-boo flash of flesh to please the viewer. Remember, though, the Vietnamese people are quite conservative.
If you want an áo dài made, you’ll need to think about all the design components and consider all the following options. Should your garment include long-sleeves or butterfly sleeves? A mandarin-style collar or a low-cut décolleté? Should it include hand-painted imagery, beading, lace, and embroidery? Should the fabric be synthetic or silk, sheer, clear, patterned, satiny, or matching that of your man’s outfit? Should it be jeweled, velvety, or brocaded? Do you want it backless? Whatever it is, it can be saucy, sexy, sweet, or sophisticated but it will definitely be flattering and feminine. And it can be worn with a matching hat that, to the untrained eye and with all due respect, resembles a… hubcap.
Today, as you’ll observe, many young Vietnamese women prefer DKNY jeans under their áo dài tunics. Their outfits will then be accessorized with Louis Vuitton handbags, Prada shoes and Fendi sunglasses. Or they leave their áo dàis hanging in the hall closet and just wear the jeans and a Dolce & Gabbana top. That’s progress.