Ao Dai: From Traditional to Trendy

Ao Dai: From Traditional to Trendy

The Ao Dai is the traditional dress for a Vietnamese woman. Made of Chinese court clothing, it was developed in the 1930s.

But it was considered a lavish wardrobe and not suitable for everyday, working clothes and so went out of style in 1954 in the Northern part of the country, and in 1975 in South Vietnam. But recently, not only has it made a comeback, it has become like a fashion statement, especially among schoolgirls and office employees in the Southern side of Vietnam. Moreover, it has transformed into a trendy formal outfit.

Pronounced “ao yai” in the South and “ao zai” in North Vietnam, the ao dai is worn more frequently in the former than in the latter. And more than a dress, the ao dai is a status symbol. It is worn by women who have a high social standing in society like shop assistants, while those who have a lower social status like manual workers wear the ao ba ba composed of a baggy top and loose pants.

The ao dai on the other hand is more elegant and demurely designed with its long, wide-legged trousers and high-necked, long-sleeved, fitted tunic and side slits.But while the traditional ao dai is long and simple, the modern version is shorter, falling just below the knees. The younger generation prefer white (as a sign of purity) or pastel-colored ao dais, while the older or married women opt for either dark or bright tunics worn over black or white trousers. Vietnamese men on the other hand, wear mandarin-style suits as their historical clothes. And like its ao dai counterpart, the color and embroidery depends on the man's class and social rank. Purple signifies a high social status while blue symblolizes a low standing in society.

But while the ao dai has reached a fashion level, the mandarin suits are limited to traditional dances, music performances, weddings and funerals.Though the ao dai was formally introduced in the 1930s, its origin dates back to as early as 1744. Lord Vu Vuong of the Nguyen Dynasty ruled the land then, and one of his orders required men and women to wear an ensemble consisting of a pair of trousers and a gown buttoned down in front.

Vietnamese fashion designer and writer Cat Tuong (Monsieur Le Mur) designed the traditional wardrobe in such a way that the top was floor-length, the bodice body-fit, and the buttons moved from the front to an opening along the shoulder and side seam. In the 1950s, two tailors in Saigon Tran Kim and Dung updated the ao dai with raglan sleeves, producing a diagonal seam running from the collar to the underarm. This design is still used up to today.

Tran Kim, known as Mr. Ao Dai, earned such recognition to begin with when he expanded his Thiet Lap Tailors business to California in 1982, igniting a revival of the traditional clothing among the Vietnamese immigrants in the United States. The ao dai achieved such popularity that Ao Dai pageants began to be celebrated every year, attracting contestants from even beyond the county and held at the prestigious Long Beach. Moreover, French designers no less than Christian Lacroix and Claude Montana rode in on the trend, adding their own version of the traditional ao dai and presenting them in European runway shows.Despite its seemingly restrictive design, the ao dai is comfortable and cool to wear. It is figure-flattering and in fact sensual-looking.

With synthetic fabrics abundantly available today, the traditional clothing has even become a practical daily garment to wear. But as its popularity grows, so has its quality seemingly dropped. The ao dai is now mass-produced and priced cheaper, decreasing it to become like an ordinary piece of wardrobe. But then again, especially to the locals, nothing is as elegant as the ao dai, the traditional and eternal fashion statement in Vietnam.