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“Áo Dài’ (pronounced ‘ow yai’) is the traditional costume of Vietnam, and has been developed over the country’s long historical past.
‘Áo Dài’ in the 18th-19th century
The Vietnamese Ao Dai history began in 1744, when Southern Lord Nguyen Phuc Khoat decreed a front-buttoned gown and trouser to be worn in his reign. The garment borrowed the general style of the Cham people, who were the original inhabitants of the land, in order to show respect and win over some support from the indigenous people. In the beginning, the Ao Dai featured a loose form and was used by both men and women.
‘Áo Dài’ during 1910-1930
The Ao Dai in this period is fairly loose, with an opened collar which allowed the wearer to show off any necklaces they might wear. Most of the gowns featured a white-colored lining, to absorb sweat, since bras hadn’t yet appeared in Vietnam at this time. The flap was usually placed at 8 inches above the wearer’s ankle.
The beginning of modern Ao Dai can be traced back in 1930, when the artist Cat Tuong (or Le Mur) combined Western dress styles with the traditional Ao Dai. The new gown was a fusion of modern and traditional style, with a floor-length and curved flap, a covered waist, along with a western-style collar, buttons and sleeves. The Le Mur Ao Dai was usually worn with white trousers, or paired with a purse or an umbrella.
‘Áo Dài’ in 1950-1960
In 1950, Vietnamese women preferred wearing their Ao Dai with very high collars and long straps. Tailors started to make dresses in a more fitted form, similar to what is typically worn today, after the introduction of bras from the West.
In 1958, Tran Le Xuan or Madam Nhu, wife of the Advisor Ngo Dinh Nhu, wore the first bateau neck (or boat neck) Ao Dai in public. It was a big innovation considering the hot weather in Saigon, although the change caused a big debate. Many people thought the neckless Ao Dai looked too sexual.
‘Áo Dài’ in 1960-1970
During the 1960s and 1970’s, the Ao Dai gained a high level of popularity. Dung, a tailor in Dakao, designed a new structure for Ao Dai, with the sleeve based on Western fashion techniques, in order to reduce the clumping of material under the wearer’s arms. The result was the raglan and mini raglan Ao Dai, which was intended for female students. The knee-length panel design and the looser pants were also popular in this period.
‘Áo Dài’ from 1975 until now
In the period between 1975 and 1990, the Ao Dais were richly decorated with embroideries, paintings and drawings along the front flap.
From 1990 until now, the dress returned to the large and long flap and high collar, featuring many different kinds of materials and versions.
Today, the Ao Dai has become Vietnamese women’s choice of fashion for special occasions, and it comes in many variations, compared to the Ao Dai in the past. For Vietnamese people, the Ao Dai is not only a symbol of culture and style – it’s a modern testament to Vietnamese history.