For a span of hundreds of years, the ao dai (áo dài – /ˈaʊ,daɪ/) has been a symbol of Vietnamese culture and an iconic representation of Vietnamese women. It holds a significant place in the cultural and diplomatic identity of the Vietnamese people among the rich and diverse cultures of the world. If you plan to visit the country or if you simply want to learn more about it, it is worth having a brief understanding of this meaningful image. This article will provide you with all the necessary knowledge about Vietnam’s national dress – the ao dai – including when to wear it and where to have one tailored for yourself.
The history and creation of ao dai
From the images on the internet, the ao dai appears to be a simple design; however, to get to how the dress looks today, it has gone through a long journey and is closely connected with the historical development of the country.
1. The very first version of ao dai – ao giao lanh
The exact origin of the ao dai is not known, but it is believed that the ao giao lanh was the earliest version of the modern ao dai. It was a long, loose dress cut on two sides from the waist to the legs and worn with a fabric belt and a black underdress. To distinguish the costume of the South from that of the North, Lord Nguyen Phuc Khoat ordered all royal officers to wear a silk blouse underneath. It is said that this was the start of the ao dai.
2. Ao tu than
In the 18th century, the need for increased agricultural work led to the ao giao lanh being split into four pieces: two in front and two in back that could be tightened during fieldwork. The four flaps represent the parents of the wife and the husband.
3. Ao ngu than
The ao ngu than was a slightly modified version of the ao tu than, with an added flap in front to distinguish royalty from the general population.
4. Ao dai Lemur
This period is considered a breakthrough in the evolution of the ao dai, leading to its modern design. In 1939, based on the foundation of the ao ngu than, an artist named Cat Tuong updated the dress to reflect the French influence at the time. The ao dai Lemur was named after her French name. She combined the four flaps into two and added a line of buttons, reflecting Western style in Vietnamese fashion. Unfortunately, this design lost popularity after 1943.
5. Ao dai Le Pho
Not long after, painter Le Pho revitalized the ao dai by removing Western elements, resizing the design for a better fit, and adding grace to its curves. This version was favored by government officials for about five years before evolving into the next stage of the iconic dress.
6. Ao dai Tran Le Xuan
Tran Le Xuan, also known as Madame Nhu, was the First Lady of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1963 and the wife of the chief advisor Ngo Dinh Nhu. She had Thai Truc Nha organize an ao dai fashion show on Dong Khoi Street, the most bustling street in Saigon at that time. The ao dai featured a bateau neckline to highlight the women’s necklines and collarbones. This design, which was biased and worn by Madame Nhu at all international meetings and parties, became more visible to international friends.
At first, the public rejected this version of the ao dai, as they believed the liberal spirit of the dress went against traditional values. However, preferences eventually shifted towards the dress due to its simplicity, elegance, and comfort.
7. Ao dai Raglan
The ao dai Raglan is considered the most complete version of the modern ao dai. It was created by Tailor Dung by attaching the sleeves at a 45-degree angle to the neckline, allowing for more flexibility. This design, which dates back to the end of the 70s, remains the Vietnamese national dress and is appreciated not only by the Vietnamese people, but also by fashion and culture lovers around the world.
8. Modern ao dai
In the fast-paced modern world, the ao dai has evolved to keep up with changing tastes. Today, it is more practical and has undergone many renovations, yet still retains its original essence.
The practice of wearing ao dai
In recent years, it has been a positive trend to see more and more people, especially the young, celebrating the ao dai by choosing it for their important events. Nevertheless, there are certain occasions where the ao dai is worn as a mandatory dress code rather than a dress of choice. Here are some situations where the dress is worn:
Wearing ao dai as a uniform
The choice of the ao dai as a uniform is an effort made by those in power to sustain the tradition of wearing the ao dai among the young generation. It is mostly worn in high schools and universities, typically in white color, and can be paired with either white or black trousers. Recently, various companies and government organizations, such as banks and airlines, have also selected the ao dai as a symbol of their institutions.
This greatly contributes to the preservation of the dress during a period of rapid adaptation and integration with Western fashion styles.
Wearing ao dai as a wedding dress / Wearing ao dai in engagement and wedding ceremonies
For many years, the ao dai has been an integral part of Vietnamese wedding ceremonies. Brides and grooms wear brightly colored ao dai in red, pink, or white, symbolizing eternal love and happiness. The ao dai, when worn as a wedding dress, is often embroidered with images of dragons and phoenixes, which are considered sacred and powerful mascots in Eastern culture. The belief is that they will protect the marriage forever. The traditional turban (khan dong) is also worn to complete the custom. This term translates directly to “framed turban,” representing the tightly knotted relationship between the couple. Not only the bride and groom, but also the entire wedding party often choose to wear the ao dai to show formality.
Wearing ao dai during the Tết holidays and other special occasions
Tết, or Lunar New Year, is the most significant holiday in Vietnam. It is, therefore, understandable that Vietnam’s traditional and national dress was chosen to be worn during this time. The original purpose of wearing it during these holidays was to formally celebrate the transition of the year. However, over time, people have started wearing the ao dai more for photography purposes. Vietnamese people love taking photos, and the ao dai adds more color to them. Regardless of the reason, it is important to see the traditional dress appearing more frequently and the cultural values it holds once again thriving among the young Vietnamese.
Wearing ao dai in daily life
There was a time when the ao dai was not widely worn due to the popularity of Western wear. However, it saw a resurgence in popularity after the release of the Vietnamese movie “Co Ba Sai Gon” (The Tailor) in 2017. The movie prominently featured the ao dai and its outstanding designs by talented designer Thuy Nguyen, who played an important role in reviving the beauty of the traditional dress. The film quickly became a hit, and along with it, more and more celebrities started wearing the ao dai to conferences, press events, and public events as a way to showcase their fashion sense and trendiness.
The making of ao dai
For the dress to fit gracefully on a person, it should be best to customize your own. The process of making ao dai is fun itself.
It depends on the occasion, purpose, and personal preference, which allows you to choose different types of materials. Most commonly, the ao dai for women is made from silk (lua), while brocade (gam) is often used for men. A wider selection of fabrics is now available for the modern ao dai, including linen, chiffon, and even lace. Local people enjoy visiting the fabric market to touch and feel the material to make sure it’s what they want before bringing it to the tailor.
Measuring and tailoring
At the tailor, your measurements will be taken with a stripe ruler (thuoc day). Every aspect will be taken seriously and carefully noted, such as the exact length of the sleeves. The entire measuring process takes only about five minutes. The tailor will confirm the style you want and any special requirements, and finally tell you the day when you can pick up your dress. Depending on the complexity of the design, the popularity of the ao dai house, and the high/low season, it can take anywhere from a few days to a month. The corresponding price also varies from a few hundred thousand to millions (VND).
Where to tailor
- Ao Dai Custom Tailors (96 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Hoi An)
- Ao Dai Xua & Nay (601 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City)
- Bambou Silk Tailors (06 Nha Chung, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi)
- Minh Tan Ao Dai Tailor (57 Nguyen Sinh Cung, Hue)
Ready-made ao dai
To meet the demand for the ao dai for daily wear, the dress is now manufactured in large quantities. Although it may not fit perfectly, if you only plan to wear it for leisure, travel, or photography, a ready-made ao dai will suffice. Simply choose your favorite design, and you can put it on right away. These manufactured ao dai also have a more affordable price, ranging from a few hundred thousand Vietnamese Dong. Additionally, you can also rent an ao dai, which is a common option for performances or photography to save time and money.
Tips and facts about ao dai
Ao dai is worn by both genders
It is a fact that the ao dai was originally made for and used to be the traditional costume of Vietnamese men (especially royal officers). Throughout history, the tradition of wearing the ao dai has declined in men’s daily life. The ao dai for men has two flaps that reach below the knee and are buttoned on the right side, and is typically sewn with brocade fabric.
Choosing appropriate undergarments
Because the ao dai is made from silky and flowy material, it is important to be mindful when choosing the undergarments to wear underneath. When wearing a white or bright-colored ao dai, it is best to avoid highly contrasting colors such as black or red. It is recommended to wear nude-colored undergarments that are not too tight in order to avoid revealing unflattering features and to maximize the traditional dress experience.
If you’re planning a photoshoot in ao dai, it can be a great idea to pair it with symbolic Vietnamese items. The combination of ao dai and non la (traditional conical hat) is a popular choice. It’s also common to see women hold a small bouquet of flowers or carry a reed shopping basket as props. Pearl earrings and necklaces are ideal accessories to enhance the elegance and femininity of the dress.
Ao dai museum
The only known museum dedicated to the display of the ao dai is not run by the government, but is privately owned by a passionate designer named Sy Hoang. Located in Thu Duc, Ho Chi Minh City, this museum showcases more than 300 designs of ao dai to the general public. Visitors can also participate in an ao dai-making workshop to gain an understanding of each step of the process, from selecting materials to sewing their own dress.
Not mistake ao dai for cheongsam
Many people mistakenly believe that ao dai is an adaptation of cheongsam, a Chinese traditional dress. However, this is not accurate. Although there are similarities in the long flaps, ao dai predates cheongsam and has its own unique form. Therefore, if you are a culture and fashion enthusiast, it’s important to be aware that ao dai did not originate from cheongsam.