Ao Dai – Vietnamese Traditional Dress

For a span of hundreds of years, the Ao Dai (Áo Dài – /ˈaʊ,daɪ/) has been the iconic symbol of Vietnamese women particularly and the Vietnamese culture generally. It holds a significant place in the cultural and diplomatic identity of our people among all the rich and diverse cultures all over the world. It is worthy to have a brief insight into this meaningful image if you plan to visit or simply would like to get to know the country a little bit better. This article will give you all the necessary knowledge about Vietnam’s national dress – the Ao Dai; when to wear it and where to tailor your own.

Ao Dai Vietnam today
Ao Dai – the Vietnamese national garment.

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 (Áo Giao Lãnh or Áo Giao Lĩnh)

Although there is no precise identification of the exact time when the Ao Dai had been brought into life, it is believed that Ao Giao Lanh is the primitive version of the nowadays Ao Dai. It is a long loose dress cut on two sides from the waist all the way along the legs. It was worn with a fabric belt and a black dress inside. At that time, to distinguish the South costume from the North, King Nguyen (Nguyễn Phúc Khoát) had ordered all the royal officers to wear a silk blouse inside. It is claimed that this is where the Ao Dai all began.

2. Ao Tu Than (Áo Tứ Thân) 

In the 18th century, increasing agricultural work required Ao Giao Lanh to be split into four pieces: two in the front and two in the back so they could be tightened up when people did field work. The four flaps represent the parents of wife and husband.

3. Ao Ngu Than (Áo Ngũ Thân)

Ao Ngu Than is a slightly modified version of Ao Tu Than with an addition of a flap in front in order to separate the royalty from the ordinary people.

4. Ao Dai Lemur

This is thought to be the breakthrough period which led to the design of modern Ao Dai. In 1939, from the foundation of Ao Ngu Than, an artist called Cat Tuong renovated the dress to suit the breadth of the French vibes at that time. The Ao Dai Lemur was named after her French name. She combined the four flaps into two, added a line of buttons which is a significant reflection of the Western style on Vietnamese fashion. Unfortunately, the popularity of this design faded after 1943.

5. Ao Dai Le Pho (Lê Phổ)

Not long after that, painter Le Pho brought the Ao Dai back by removing all the Western aspects of the dress, resizing the design so that the dress would fit better and embrace the curves more gracefully. This version was favored by the government people for about 5 years before transferring to the next stage of the famous dress.

6. Ao Dai Tran Le Xuan (Trần Lệ Xuân)

Tran Le Xuan or more well-known as Madame Nhu – the First Lady of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1963 and the wife of the chief advisor Ngo Dinh Nhu (Ngô Đình Nhu). She appointed the Thai Truc Nha (Thái Trúc Nha) to organize an Ao Dai fashion show on the most bustling street of Saigon at that time – Dong Khoi Street. The Ao Dai highlighted a bateau neckline to show off the women’s neckline and collar bones. This design was biased and worn by her to all the international meetings and parties which made it more visible to international friends.

At first, this version of Ao Dai was rejected by the public as they thought the liberal spirit of the dress was against the traditional values. However, the preference slowly moved towards the dress due to its simplicity, elegance and comfort.

7. Ao Dai Raglan

This is seen as the most completed version of the modern Ao Dai which was created by Tailor Dung by attaching the long sleeves at a 45° from the neckline to allow more flexibility. This design from the end of the 70s remains until now as the Vietnamese national dress which is appreciated by not only our people but also fashion and culture lovers all over the world.

8. Modern Ao Dai

In the busy pace of modern life, the Ao Dai has been transferring itself to catch up with the changing taste of the people. Today, the Ao Dai appears to be more practical with plenty of renovations yet still remains the basis of the original dress.

Ao Dai Vietnam today
The Ao Dai has been transferring itself to catch up with the changing taste of the people.

The practice of wearing Ao Dai

In recent years, it has been a good sign seeing 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 an obligatory dress code more than a dress of choice. Here are some situations where the dress is worn.

Wearing Ao Dai as uniform

Choosing the Ao Dai as a uniform is an effort of the people in power with the hope to sustain the traditions of wearing Ao Dai among the young people. It is most worn in high schools and universities with white color. It is optional to combine the dress with white or black trousers. Recently, a number of companies and government organizations such as banks and airlines have also chosen the Ao Dai as a symbol of their institution. To maximize the comforts of wearing Ao Dai, it is only compulsory to wear it on Monday when the flag ceremony takes place.

This greatly contributes to the living of the dress throughout a period of fast adaptation and integration with Western fashion styles.

Wearing Ao Dai as uniform in Vietnam
Not only does the Ao Dai serve as a costume, but it is also a beautiful memory for many generations of students.
Wearing Ao Dai as wedding dress / Wearing Ao Dai in engagement and wedding ceremonies

For a long time, the Ao Dai has been an indispensable part of Vietnamese wedding ceremonies. The brides and grooms wear Ao Dai in bright colors like red, pink or white as a symbol of eternal love and happiness. The Ao Dai as a wedding dress is embroidered with iconic images of dragons and phoenixes: the most sacred and powerful mascot in Eastern culture with the belief that they will protect the marriage ever after. And the custom is not completed until the bride and groom crown themselves with the traditional Ao Dai turban (khăn đóng). This term translated directly into English is “framed turban” as a metaphor for the tightly knotted relationship between the couple from then on. Not only the marrying couple but also the whole wedding squad often opt for the Ao Dai as a way of showing formality.

Wearing Ao Dai during the Tết holidays and other special occasions

Among all the special occasions, Tết or Lunar New Year is the most important holiday of the Vietnamese. So, it is understandable that the Ao Dai which is the traditional and national dress is chosen to wear. The original purpose of wearing Ao Dai on these days was to formally celebrate the transitional moments of the year. However, over time, people wearing Ao Dai are more for photography purposes. Vietnamese people love taking photos and the Ao Dai adds more color to them. Whatever the reason is, it is more important to see the traditional dress appear more and more; and the cultural values it holds once again thrive among the young Vietnamese.

Wearing Ao Dai in daily life

There was a time when the Ao Dai was not willingly worn as a result of the huge wave of Western wear. However, the Ao Dai witnessed a rapid rise thanks to the production of a Vietnamese movie named Cô Ba Sài Gòn (or The Tailor as it is known in English) in 2017. Using the main theme and material of Ao Dai throughout the show with the appearance of outstanding designs of Ao Dai from the talented designer Thuy Nguyen – an important person in the journey of reviving the beauty of the traditional dress, the movie quickly became a blockbuster and together with it, more and more celebrities choose the dress in the conference press as well as public events as a way to assert their taste of fashion and show off their sense of trend. Since then, the Ao Dai has been popular again up till now.

The making of Ao Dai

For the Ao Dai to fit gracefully on a person, it should be best to customize your own. The process of making Ao Dai is the fun itself.

Choosing materials

It depends on the occasion, the purpose and personal preference that you can choose different types of materials. Most commonly, the Ao Dai for women is made from silk (lụa); for men, brocade (gấm) is often used. For the modern Ao Dai, a wider selection of fabrics is available. The Ao Dai now can be seen made from linen, chiffon or even lace. Local people love going to the fabric market to touch and feel the material to make sure that is what they want before bringing it to the tailor.

Measuring and tailoring

At the tailor, your measurements will be taken with a stripe ruler (thước dây). Every aspect will be taken seriously and noted carefully such as the exact length of the sleeves. The whole measuring process takes only about five minutes. The tailor will confirm the style you want, special requirements and finally tell you a certain 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 that it could take from a minimum of a few days to a month. The price, corresponding to it, is also varies from a couple of 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 of Ao Dai for daily use, nowadays, the dress is manufactured in large quantities. Of course, by this way, Ao Dai cannot perfectly fit you; but, if you only wear it for hanging out, travel experience or photography, the ready-made dresses will come in handy. You just need to choose the design of your favorite and can put it on immediately. These manufactured Ao Dai also has a more affordable price of a few hundred thousand VND. More interestingly, you can also rent Ao Dai. Normally, we rent it for school performance activities or photography purposes to save time and money.

Ao Dai in Hoi An
For the Ao Dai to fit gracefully on a person, it should be best to customize your own. The process of making Ao Dai is the fun itself.

Some tips and facts about Ao Dai

Ao Dai is worn by both sexes

It is a fact that the Ao Dai was first made for and used to be the traditional costume of Vietnamese men (especially the royal officers). Through the ups and downs of history, this tradition of wearing Ao Dai no longer appears much in men’s daily life. The Ao Dai for men has two flaps that are (below the knee)s, buttoned on the right side, and usually sewn with brocade fabrics.

Choosing appropriate lingeries

Because the Ao Dai is made from silky and flappy materials, so you need to be careful when it comes to choosing the lingeries that go under it. Especially, when you opt for white or other bright colors, it could easily offend other people if you wear highly contrasting colors like black or red. It is recommended to wear nude-color lingeries which are not too tight in order not to reveal your unconfident figure feature and to maximize your experience of wearing Vietnamese traditional dress.

Combining accessories

If you are planning to have a photoshoot session in Ao Dai, it is a good idea to mix and match with some symbolic items of the Vietnamese people. The combo of Ao Dai and Non La (traditional leaf pointed hat) is probably the most popular one. It is also caught in the photos that ladies hold a small bunch of flowers or simply carry a reed shopping tote as props. Pearl earrings and necklace are the best choice of accessories to bring out the elegance and femininity of the dresser.

Not only big festivals, but Ao Dai also appears in everyday life.
The Ao Dai and the Non La are two iconic symbols associated with Vietnamese women.
Ao Dai Museum

The only known museum for the Ao Dai display is not run by the government but privately owned by a dedicated and passionate designer Sy Hoang. Located in Thu Duc, Ho Chi Minh City, this is where more than 300 designs of Ao Dai are displayed to the mass public. You can also take part in the Ao Dai making workshop to understand each step of the process from choosing material to sewing your own dress.

Not mistaken Ao Dai for Cheongsam

Many people state that the Ao Dai is an adaptation of the Cheongsam (or the Qipao) – a Chinese traditional dress. However, it is not correct. Although there are some similarities in the long flaps, the Ao Dai appeared way before the other and has its own primitive form as mentioned. So if you are a culture and fashion enthusiast, it is appreciated to be aware that it did not originate from one or the other.

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