One of the most memorable images a visitor has of Vietnam is the sight of women wearing the áo dài. The word áo means dress, coat, tunic or upper garment, while the word dài (pronounced “zai” in the North and “yai” in the South) means long. The outfit comprises a long-sleeved, side-fastened, tightly fitting, ankle-length coat, split on each side just above the waist, and worn over loose trousers. Silk is the usual material, with younger women favoring light, bright and pastel colors and older women preferring darker colors. The áo dài was not intended to be an everyday workingwoman’s garment, but rather something to be worn at social gatherings and public events like weddings, festivals and national holidays.
The áo dài, especially when worn with the conical cap called nón, is a renowned symbol of Vietnamese femininity. Yet its adoption as the national dress for women dates back only to the late 1980s. It is not the traditional clothing for Vietnamese women and a century ago it was not yet even a sketch in a designer’s notebook.
In the centuries preceding colonialism, women wore the áo từ thân, a looser long coat of four panels, also slit on the sides, tied with a cloth belt at the waist and originally worn over a long skirt. In 1744 Lord Nguyễn Phúc Khoàt, to distinguish his people in the South from those of the rival Trịnh Lords regime in the north, issued a dress code that required women to switch from northern-style skirts to Chinese-style trousers.
Throughout the 19th century, from the establishment of a unified Vietnam through its conquest and colonization by the French, the basic women’s outfit remained the same, though more often with trousers instead of skirts in the south. But after the First World War, a new generation of culturally conscious Vietnamese sought to introduce new, modern elements into traditional culture in art, music, theater and fashion.
The designers’ idea was to create a style that was still recognizably traditional but also looked modern. In the 20s and 30s French women wore clothes that fit the body snugly, so different from the loose, bulky native dress. Designers adapted the traditional áo từ thân by reducing the four narrow panels to two wider ones and eliminated the belt. To give it the modern look, by the use of darts and tucks the coat fits close to the form of the body. The trousers, too, fit tightly around the hips and loosely on the legs. A high collar replaced the open neck of the áo từ thân.
Women began wearing the áo dài in place of the older garment in the 30s, but the outfit all but disappeared during the World War II years. It revived afterwards and its popularity spread, especially in the south. But in subsequent decades of war and hardship its use declined, only to be revived in the late 80s when life began to improve with the đồi mới reforms. The government began promoting it, schools made it the girls’ uniform, and more public events occurred to warrant its use, like the revival of festivals, ever more lavish weddings and so on. Banks, airlines, high-end restaurants and hotels started requiring their female staff to wear the áo dài.
While it is essentially special occasion apparel, the áo dài is still popular today, even among the youth, who don it for festival processions, wedding parties and anytime they feel especially Vietnamese. With its tailored fit and thin fabric it reveals everything about the wearer’s curves, yet the only skin showing is that of the hands, the face and the thumb-wide triangles of flesh between the slits of the coat and the waist of the trousers. Alluring yet graceful, it is the nation's ultimate feminine garment--and uniquely Vietnamese.