The 2000 Year History of the Vietnamese Ao Dai

Most of the world recognizes the Ao Dai as the national symbol of Vietnam. Not everyone knows that to be such an iconic symbol at the moment, the Ao Dai has been through a significant evolution from where it began. Let’s dig into the story of why the Ao Dai is the perfect fusion of Eastern and Western cultures.

To be honest, no one is sure when the Vietnamese Ao Dai first sprouted its roots. But there is some historical context for us to make our own conclusions. Some experts say the first sign of Ao Dai was found on antique bronze drums from the Dong Son Culture, before Han Chinese influence. Other experts believe it appeared 40AD introduced by the Trung Sisters. These two heroines led a revolution against the Chinese Han dynasty, and marked Vietnam’s initial independent state. So when was the exact time that Ao Dai was first introduced?

Evidence shows it wasn’t until 1744 that Ao Dai began to make a lasting impression on society. Vietnam was actually divided into two regions at that time. The northern lords of Hanoi forced their subjects to wear garments called Ao Giao Linh, reminiscent of Chinese robes by Han people, including a front buttoned gown and skirt. While the southern regions of Vietnam demanded that members wear trousers, covered by a long silk gown inspired by Champa style attire.

Later on, southern people shortened the gown to wear with trousers, called Ao Ba Ba. While the norther version saw the first major evolutionary phase of the Ao Dai we know today, shifting in order to differentiate between two distinct social classes. The garb most widely worn by upper class women during the 1800s was the Ao Ngu Than. A five-panel gown consisting of four outer panels, two in the front sewn into one piece, and two in the back. Adding collar detail along with a hidden baby flap, an alternative to the bra, which was not yet invented at the time. On the other hand the working class wore a new, more tidy, functional design called Ao Tu Than, or four-panel gown. In short, Ao Tu Than is another version of Ao Ngu Than, with the two back panels sewn into one piece. The front panels were not connected, but could be tied together. As was typical for the lower class clothing at the time, the four-panel gown is often in dark colors. Overall, the two dresses initially had much looser silhouettes and were also much shorter than the Ao Dai we see now, since people were not yet equipped with modern sewing tools

Moving into the early 20th century, the Ao Dai silhouette is fairly loose, with an open collar which allowed the women to show off any necklaces they might wear. In the next period,1930’s to 1950’s, French colonization had brought a Western influence into Vietnam. The Hanoian artist, Cat Tuong, aka Le Mur, varied Ao Dai into many different silhouettes, taking inspiration from Western fashion. Le Mur tightened up the Ao Dai to fit the form of the Vietnamese woman’s body. He raised the shoulders, extended the dress to reach floor length, changed to a brighter color scheme and added Western details like puffy sleeves, heart shaped collar and a bow. In short, he made it sensual, flattering and appealing to the eye. The design gained popularity over the next four years, but still some claimed that the design was too sexy, and not appropriate to the Vietnamese culture.

Soon after that, Ao Dai Le Mur was adjusted by painter, Le Pho, to be more traditional. He cut off the puffy sleeves and replaced with the details from Ao Tu Than and Ao Ngu Than. From that point on until the 1950’s, his version of Ao Dai with the two flaps tied to the body and closed at the neck, remained popular as it was accepted by the more conservative ideology at the time. However, around the late 1950’s the United States had replaced France as the occupying force. In 1958, Tran Le Xuan, the wife of the President’s chief advisor, made a controversial fashion statement by wearing a V-neck collared dress, with short sleeves and gloves. And though some praised her for her elegant take on the costume, many others were offended and felt this action was done in poor taste. The distaste for the modern version was so strong that the government banned the dress, as it appeared to serve as an acceptance of capitalist ideals. But was the ban effective?

Not really, in fact it was in the 1960’s that Ao Dai gained the highest level of popularity. Especially in southern Vietnam, since Saigon designer Dung Dakao revolutionized the dress again with the addition of raglan sleeves. The front panel of the Ao Dai was connected by buttons, lined from the collar to the armpit and continuing down to the side of the hip. With this innovation, the dress showed fewer wrinkles, lying flat on the female body, while still feeling comfortable in movement. The 1970’s and early 80’s witnessed the country’s reform period, Doi Moi, along with the wave of hippy culture. Embracing the philosophy “Live fast. Die young”, Ao Dai was modernized with a mini version, lighter materials, vivid colors, patterns of plants, flowers and geometric shapes. The bodice was sewn narrow and short to the knees, with wide body, low collar and long trousers with wide bell-bottoms up to 60cm. This trend was popular until the mid 90’s.

In the 21st century, although being worn less on a daily basis, Ao Dai still remains as a national symbol of grace, beauty, cultural pride and Vietnamese creativity. Designer Si Hoang illustrates Vietnamese paintings as patterns on his Ao Dai, whille Minh Hanh is famous for using hill tribe fabric. Recently Thuy Nguyen reinvented Ao Dai with her unique silhouettes and her exclusive use of Vietnamese silk brocade. As a whole, the Vietnamese Ao Dai is a dress that everyone, including men, can customize to fit their own taste and figure. From high fashion to traditionalist and everything in between, there’s no doubt why this dress is such a treasured element of Vietnamese culture.