Description

 

Vietnamese conical hats (Nón Lá) are often added as the “finishing touch” to several of the stereotypical Asian cultural costumes sold at halloween shops. Although globalization and cross-cultural dressing has brought the Vietnamese Nón Lá into daily dress practices around Asia, it is an article unique to Vietnamese traditional dress. The Nón Lá is a cultural object that embodies Vietnamese spirit and history, not an accessory to enhance racist perceptions of Asian costume. 

There are no precise origins of the Nón Lá, however evidence of its shape can be seen on ancient bronzes dating back to the 3rd century BCE. According to Vietnamese legends, during a long period of torrential rain, a giant goddess descended from the sky wearing a hat so large it shielded the people from the rain. Her hat was made from four large leaves stitched together with bamboo sticks. As a way to honor and emulate the goddess after her departure, the Vietnamese people created the Nón Lá. 

The Nón Lá is now a staple in Vietnamese culture and remains a symbol without restrictions to age, sex or status. Women typically wear a broad-brimmed version of the Nón Lá, whereas men wear one with a higher cone and smaller brim. Another variation of the Nón Lá, called a Nón Bai Tho (Poem Leaf Hat), emerged out of the ancient capital, Hue. The Nón Bai Tho is characterized by silhouettes of poems or images that are inserted between the two layers of palm leaf, creating an image only visible against the light. Today, it is also common to see the Nón Lá customized through embroidery and/or painting. Most Nón Lá are still constructed by hand in several of Vietnam’s craft villages, demonstrating the skill and beauty in Vietnamese culture.

Details

Appropriation and Influence

Black and white photograph of the Christian Dior New Look on a model posing in a tree-lined street

Christian Dior, New Look, 1947

One of the most highly regarded fashion collections of all time introduced hats with very similar silhouettes to the Nón Lá. Many of Christian Dior’s New Look hats were also made with natural materials such as straw, or leaf, creating an even closer resemblance to the Nón Lá. Dior gave no credit to the Vietnamese inspiration, misleading people to believe he invented the look.
Willy Maywald. New Look, 1947. Christian Dior. View Larger.
A black and white editorial featuring three white models wearing asian inspired clothing and conical hats

Yves Saint Laurent, Dreams of the Orient, Haute Couture Collection, 1977

Yves Saint Laurent’s Haute Couture collection of 1977 demonstrates long standing trends of orientalism in fashion. He took several distinct elements of dress from different Asian cultures and combined them to create generic “Asian” inspired looks. Several of these outfits were topped with Vietnamese Nón Lá, even when they did not belong. As an influential fashion house, the YSL collection promoted the appropriation of Asian aesthetics for profit and set the example for other brands.
A fashion editorial featuring looks from Yves Saint Laurent’s Dreams of the Orient, 1977. View larger.
Runway photograph of a white model from Chanel Pre-fall Shanghai wearing a brown skirt suit and burgundy non la hat

Chanel, Pre-Fall Shanghai, 2010

For Chanel’s 2010 Pre-Fall collection in Shanghai, Karl Lagerfeld drew inspiration from “Chinese sartorial history.” During the fashion show, several white models sported Nón Lá, a Vietnamese hat with no direct relations to Lagerfeld’s Chinese inspiration. As a result, the Nón Lá becomes associated with Chinese dress and its cultural significance is removed from its Vietnamese origins.
A look from Chanel Pre-Fall Shanghai, 2010. View Larger.
Party City Non La hat product photo

Party City, 2020

Party City advertised a “Non La Straw Hat” as part of their Chinese New Year collection. They used the correct Vietnamese term, Nón Lá, for the product but mislabeled it in the description as a “Chinese straw hat”. Although Vietnamese-inspired conical hats have been widely adopted across Asia, they are not of Chinese origin and are not part of traditional Chinese New Year attire. This product contributes to the erasure of Vietnamese heritage and perpetuates generalized Asian stereotypes.
Party City. Non La Straw Hat, 2020. Woven straw, elastic, 15 x 7 inches. View Larger.
References
“Non La – A Symbol of Vietnamese’ Charm and Romance.” Vietnam.com. Accessed August 21, 2020. https://www.vietnam.com/en/culture/clothing/non-la-a-symbol-of-vietnamese-charm-and-romance.html.

Nguyen, Nhi. “A Guide to the Vietnamese Conical Hat.” Vietnam Travel Information. December, 24, 2019. https://www.itourvn.com/blog/a-guide-to-the-vietnamese-conical-hat. 

“The Beauty of Vietnamese Conical Hat or Non La.” Vietnam Culture. Accessed August 21, 2020. https://www.vietnam-culture.com/clothing/vietnamese-conical-hat/. 

Rajapaksha, Piumi. “Why Do Vietnamese People Wear Conical Hats?” Culture Trip. January 2, 2018. https://theculturetrip.com/asia/vietnam/articles/the-humble-tradition-of-vietnams-conical-hats/.

Learn More
Video: How to make a traditional Vietnamese palm leaf hat

Video: 2016 Vietnamese Hat (non la) Dance to Y.Ê.U by MIN of ST.319

There is a lack of academic scholarship on this object, please contact us if you have additional sources or can contribute to this topic.