The Ao Dai, literally meaning "long dress" or "long tunic," is one out of many traditional Vietnamese costumes worn (nowadays) primarily by women. It is the most popular national costume in Vietnam
Early versions of the garment date back to the early 1700's, and were influenced by imperial Chinese garb of the Qing dynasty, known as Qipao. Unlike its cousin the qipao, which is a tight fitted dress with slits on both sides (in its modern reincarnation), the áo dài is a looser tunic, which even in its tight-fitting form is still left wide and flowing at the bottom.Furthermore, the slits of the áo dài extend above the waistline, revealing a slight glimpse of the sides of the midriff.
Some historians have suggested that the áo dài was an evolution of different influences from many directions, including the ancient four-flapped tunic áo tứ thân, one of the other more well known (and much older than áo dài) traditional Kinh costumes.
The original Ao dai, or Ao ngu thân
While the indigenous áo tứ thân costume (which existed for at least a thousand years in Vietnamese society) is viewed as having a large hand in the design of the áo dài, the closest form to the áo dài that is known today made its first appearance as the áo ngũ thân which translates as "5-part dress".
Áo ngũ thân tended to be much looser fitting in general, sometimes designed with wide sleeves. In the past, rich Vietnamese often displayed their prosperity through clothing, often by wearing many layers at once. Some aristocrats were known to wear 3-5 layers of áo dài at one time.
The áo ngũ thân had a major difference from the modern áo dài in the way it was made. 1800s áo ngũ thân were made of five parts (hence its name): This consisted of two flaps sewn together in the back, two flaps sewn together in the front, and a fifth flap hidden underneath the front main flap. This five-part áo dài was similar to its current incarnation in that it still appears to be a two-flapped tunic with slits on both sides, but the front and back flap were generally much broader, and of course the dress was much more loosely fit.The high collar, buttoned in the same fashion as modern áo dài was still intact, but women could also wear the dress with the first few buttons undone, revealing a glimpse of the áo yếm bodice underneath.
In 1930, the Vietnamese fashion designer Cát Tường, known to the French as Monsieur Le Mur, modified it. He lengthened the áo dài so that the top reached the floor, and made it fit the curves of the body closer. With the import of an abundance of foreign fabrics in 20th century Vietnam, including broader fabric, the modernized áo dài required less material to be made and as a result the flaps also became generally slimmer.In Saigon during the 1950s, Tran Kim of Thiet Lap Tailors and Dung of Dung Tailors modified the áo dài to a form closest to what is seen today. He produced the gowns with raglan sleeves, creating a diagonal seam that runs from the collar to the underarmÁo dài only continued to become more form-fitting with time.In the 1960s the collarless áo dài style was popularized by the infamous Madame Nhu (former first lady of South Vietnam).
Despite the two major modifications to the áo dài in the 20th century, it has also seen slight changes throughout each decade as fashion changes constantly. Everything from floral to checkered patterns, the use of transparent fabrics, the tunic length being largely reduced or lengthened, has all been seen throughout different eras of Vietnamese history.
The áo dài has always been more prevalent in the south than in the north, and has faced a surge in popularity in recent years, even with overseas Vietnamese.In recent decades it has inspired worldwide renowned fashion designers such Ralph Lauren, among other big names, to create entire collections of áo dài.
The most popular style of the áo dài as we see it today is tight-fitting around the wearer's upper torso, emphasizing her bust and curves. For this reason, the áo dài, while it covers the whole body, is said to be provocative, especially when it is made of thin or see-through fabric.
The Royal/Wedding Ao dai
The royal costume most commonly known today would be the Ao menh phu of the Nguyen dynasty. It is predictably more festive (in color and decoration) and includes a long flowing outer robe (with large, wide sleeves).
This costume, once mandatory for royal women of the Nguyen dynasty to wear at public functions, has subsequently become the mandatory costume for Vietnamese brides.
In addition, brides often wear khăn đóng, a crown-like headgear which is made from silk brocade.
The áo dài and its place in modern-day Vietnam
In 2007, the Vietnamese film The White Silk Dress was released to high acclaim worldwide, centering in particular on a white silk áo dài that is the sole legacy a mother in a poverty-stricken family has to give to her daughters. The film emphasizes the huge cultural significance the áo dài plays in Vietnamese culture and how it symbolizes the spirit of Vietnamese women.