When one thinks of Vietnam, the first picture in their mind is probably the conical hat, gracing the heads of rice farmers and street vendors. But these hats are purely utilitarian, meant to protect people from the rain and sun. On the opposite end of the Vietnamese fashion spectrum is the traditional dress, known as the áo dài, one of Vietnam’s most iconic cultural garments.
Áo dàis were created in 1744 by the command of Lord Nguyen Phuc Khoat of Hue. At that time, fashion was universal – there was little difference in style between the peasants and the aristocrats. Lord Nguyen, influenced by the fashions of the Chinese imperial court, decreed that that both men and women in his court wear trousers and a gown with buttons down the front.
Over the next 150 years, the áo dài underwent some minor transformations, with extra panels being added and subtracted. But it was the French who would ultimately shape the current style.
Imagine Paris in its 1920s golden age – jazz, beatniks, writers, lavish parties, artistic exploration and opulence. It was this atmosphere that would take the áo dài from baggy traditional garment to form-fitting dress that made its Paris debut in 1921.
By 1930, the style had gone full-circle and returned to Vietnam where local fashionistas further developed the Parisian influences.
The dress continued to make headlines throughout the decade and was adopted as a national costume. The dress all but disappeared during World War II, but the áo dài reappeared en mass during the 1950s. The infamous Madame Nhu, first lady of South Vietnam, popularized a collarless version beginning in 1958 and then gained immense popularity in the south until 1975. A brightly colored áo dài hippy was even introduced in 1968.
After the American War, with the economy sputtering, the dress was relegated to traditional celebrations such as weddings. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the style was again popularized and used as school uniforms and also by professional women in banks, travel agencies and flight attendants (the áo dài is the official uniform for state-run, Vietnam Airlines).
With Vietnam’s recent economic revival, consumer spending has skyrocketed and it’s not uncommon for women to have numerous áo dàis of varying color for any number of different occasions.
Today’s áo dàis have come a long way from their traditional beginnings. But even as the country continues its march towards modernization, the traditional dress is still a core element of Vietnam’s contemporary style.