The traditional dress of Vietnam, the Áo Dài, captures the essence of Vietnamese culture and pride, embodying their ideals of beauty, modesty and grace. The Áo Dài, meaning “long dress” or “long tunic,” has evolved throughout the decades, however the earliest known versions date back to the 18th century. Lord Vu Vuong of the Nguyen Dynasty decreed in 1744 that both men and women should wear an ensemble of trousers covered by a gown to distinguish themselves from northern rivals. This Áo Dài-like ensemble borrowed elements from the Cham ethnic group, and represented the Nguyen Dynasty’s respect and support of their culture.
In the 1930s, Vietnamese fashion designer Cat Tuong, known to the French as Monsieur Le Mur, modified the older versions of the Áo Dài, creating the iconic garment seen today. Throughout the 1950s and 60s fashion designers in Saigon introduced more form-fitting silhouettes, raglan sleeves and different collar styles inspired by Western fashions. Thanks to Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu (former first lady of South Vietnam), the Áo Dài experienced a revival during this period.
Although there is a variety of Áo Dài styles today, the traditional significance surrounding colour remains. Young, unmarried girls often wear white to symbolize their youth and purity. As women age, they incorporate different pastel tones, and strong, rich shades are reserved for married women. Additionally, certain colours such as blue, brown and purple are often saved for religious worship ceremonies. However it is worn, the Áo Dài, with its extensive history, represents the resilience and adaptability of the Vietnamese to create a unique cultural garment.
Appropriation and Influence
Kacey Musgraves, 2019
Kacey Musgraves performed at a concert in Dallas, Texas wearing a traditional Vietnamese Áo Dài styled without the long trousers that accompany the ensemble underneath. She also wore South-Asian inspired jewelry and accessories unrelated to Vietnamese culture. Musgraves’ stylistic choices actively sexualizes the Áo Dài and contributes to preconceived notions about Asian femininity and sexual subservience.
Thuy Nguyen, 2011
Ao Dai Festival, 2013 - present
Ngyuen, Huong Thi. “Áo Dài – The Traditional Costume of Vietnam.” Global Storybook. September 21, 2017. https://globalstorybook.org/ao-dai-pride-vietnamese-culture/
Ong, Edric. “The Fashion World of Southeast Asia.” In Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: South Asia and Southeast Asia, edited by Jasleen Dhamija, 263–268. Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010.
Tran, Rachel. “Ao Dai – The Vietnamese Long Dress.” Vietnam Discovery. February 11, 2020. https://vietnamdiscovery.com/culture-arts/ao-dai-vietnamese-long-dress/
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