Long dresses made from the finest silk, embellished with intricate embroidery and handmade paintings of flowers, butterflies and mountains, and paired with flowy pants that either bear the same color or go in total contrast with the main dress – the sight of áo dài on Tết never gets old.
A symbol of feminine elegance and culture well-preserved by generations, the áo dài holds within it a distinct style and look unique to Vietnam. The graceful way it dances with the movement of its wearer and the sophistication it exudes from every angle, the Vietnamese national dress remains the country’s most iconic symbol, despite the evolution it has undergone through the years – going from regal to practical, from traditional to high-fashion, and then back. And like the culture it embodies, the áo dài is timeless, a persistent benchmark of refinement that is sure to withstand changing trends.
A work of art
In Ho Chi Minh City’s buzzing Binh Thanh District lies the humble shop of Mark and Vy, an Australian-Vietnamese couple who creates custom-fit áo dài for all genders and all sizes. Hundreds of fabric with different textures and shades, mostly locally sourced, fill the main part of the shop. It’s chaotic at first glance, but it’s the kind of chaos you wouldn’t mind embracing as every color and design try to grab your attention.
“We have all kinds of fabric you’ll ever want in your áo dài. And because we curate the cloth ourselves, our customers know that these are the best fabric out there,” says Mark as he points at their best sellers. “People are getting more and more interested in fabrics with handmade paintings made by local artists. Mind you, we only work with the best artists, too.”
In the midst of all the colorful textiles, Vy’s mother sits quietly in front of a sewing machine. Eyes fixed on the cloth laid out on the table, her hands masterfully guiding the needle. Even as we stand before her, she doesn’t look up.
“Vy’s mother is our one and only master tailor. She has been making áo dài for over 30 years, a skill she acquired from her own mother and grandmother who were tailors themselves,” explains Mark. “With her sewing áo dài gives each and every one of our products a personal touch. Our customers know who makes the dresses we deliver, making them feel that it really is made specially for them by a great tailor.”
Making an áo dài is tricky and exacting, and requires skills that can only be achieved through years of practice. The process begins when customers come in and ask for a made-to-measure dress. From there, the customers choose the kind of fabric, color and pattern they want (when they can’t decide, Vy gives her expert suggestions). Getting the right measurements is the key to creating the perfect ao dai as standard sizes do not accurately represent most people’s body types.
It’s all about using the right kind of fabric specifically fitted for a body type, the rest of the elements just follow naturally after that.
A simple dress can be done in 48 hours; but for Vy’s mother, a meticulous tailor that spares no details, it takes a week or two. She personally irons the dresses, makes final adjustments and manually sews the sequin and pearl finishes. The outcome is perfection, with the exact fit, curves and cuts.
With the intricacies and complexities it entails, an áo dài is a work of art. It requires mastery, utmost attention to detail and a passion rooted in something beyond tangible – say, patriotism.
“There is beauty and elegance in simplicity and perfect tailor-made fit, and there is plenty of room to be creative with tasteful customisation of fabric, different necklines, sleeve lengths etc. We aren’t absolute traditionalists, but any changes we make, we always strive to be respectful of the underlying silhouette and structure of this traditionally and culturally important garment,” says Mark.
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Different styles, timeless elegance
Nobody really knows the exact history of áo dài, though cultural experts found pieces of evidence dating back to 1744, when Vietnam was still divided into two territories, the Inner Land (Đàng Trong) and the Outer Land (Đàng Ngoài). To distinguish between northern and southern styles, King Nguyen Phuc Khoat of the Nguyen Dynasty asked his subjects to wear a front-buttoned gown with trousers, known then as áo ngũ thân. Over the years, the dress was simplified, with lesser parts and more fitted form.
As Vietnam opened its doors to foreign influences and contemporary techniques of tailoring, the áo dài went through more changes. Boat neck, cropped length, short sleeves - the list of new styles goes on.
For Dieu Anh, owner of dieuANH.space, these changes only made the traditional dress more meaningful, allowing designers the right amount of freedom to express their artistry while staying grounded.
“I am a modern designer. I always want to try something new with my creations, including áo dài. I tried using leather as a small but significant detail, or a denim mixed with Tencel. These new styles gave people a new perspective of the traditional dress, but it is still elegant...just with added character.”
With her more modern take on dresses, Dieu Anh’s fashion label dedicates new inspirations to empower the women of today: those who value their roots of culture but are open to new experiences.
She experiments on various concepts and patterns, tries and mixes different materials to create a style that balances the spirit of grace and sensible liberty.
“Áo dài is an elegant dress. Wearing it brings magic, that’s never going to change. However, many young people also prefer to express themselves differently. They like wearing something more trendy. What I try to do is to bridge that gap between being traditional and catering to the new generation of Vietnamese. I think we can go as far and as much as we want, but what’s important is we don’t mistake freedom with abandoning our culture.”
Even with their differing perspectives, both Mark and Dieu Anh agree that making and wearing an áo dài is all about respect.
“The very reason we wear áo dài is the sense of pride it brings, says Dieu Anh. “It makes us proud to be Vietnamese. As long as one understands that, it’s not wrong to go with new trends.”
“The main thing is just to have a respectful attitude about styling and wearing, because it is a very important garment to Vietnamese people. I think the key words to keep in mind are modesty and elegance. There are plenty of ways to style an áo dài while remaining respectful to Vietnamese culture,” concludes Mark.