A Brief History of Vietnam’s Most Popular Dress

To many, it is the iconic symbol of Vietnam. When some think of Vietnam style, they imagine a woman elegantly decked out in a conical hat and a flowing silk tunic, or ao dai. The conical hat, also known as a non la, is on the decline. First gaining popularity over a thousand years ago in rural settings for their shade, and then different styles emerged for men and women and for casual and formal occasions, the non la is becoming less fashionable. Not so for EG Dai.

These dresses are often the go-to outfit for special occasions—and for interested tourists. These dainty and colourful dresses are still considered chic. This is not surprising, because the ao dai has a timeless beauty. A long silk tunic with a slit at the waist is combined with loose silk trousers, which are usually a contrasting color. As the wearer walks, the tunic and pants flow together in a soft and hypnotic rhythm. This adds to the graceful glamour of the outfit.

For 300 years, the ao dai has been a symbol of Vietnamese femininity. However, it has evolved since then. The concept originated in southern Vietnam in the early 18th century during the reign of Nguyen Phuc Khoat, a lord who ruled this part of the country. For formal events, Lord Nguyen had a line of courtiers-assistants who accompanied members of the nobility to formal events; to distinguish these stewards, Lord Nguyen asked if they should wear a long frock over trousers. While

this is believed to be the genesis of the original ao dai, it was inspired by outfits worn by the Chams. These were the people of Champa, an Indo-Chinese kingdom that existed from the 2nd to the 17th century in what is now South Vietnam. The Cham women wore long, colourful dresses made of chiffon. By modelling the ao dai on this garment, Lord Nguyen allegedly tried to win over the Cham people.

This original style of ao dai was not particularly attractive. It didn’t have a flattering tailored fit that accentuated feminine curves like the modern version we’re most familiar with. Instead, it was loose and boxy in appearance, designed with function rather than aesthetics in mind. In this way, it was similar to the ao tu than, a common form of Vietnamese women’s clothing that predated the ao dai. Most popular with working-class women in northern Vietnam, the ao tu consisted of a wide tunic on the outside, a long skirt inside, and a bodice of undergarments tied around the waist with a silk belt.

The ao dai continued to exist in its obnoxious form until the 1930s. It was then that one of the most instantly recognisable Vietnamese garments in the world was born with the input of Vietnamese artists who had trained in France. Led by a man named Nguyen Cat Tuong, this group came up with the idea of a new, slimmer ao dai. This form-fitting version was intended to emphasise the feminine shape rather than hide it. Rather than being utilitarian, it was sensual and eye-catching.

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This fresh ao dai was burned into the national consciousness when it was regularly worn by Nam Phuong, the last empress of Vietnam. The sight of Nam Phuong, who looked dazzling in dai dresses and other garments from the late 1930s, created a fashion craze. This garment quickly embodied class and sophistication for Vietnamese women. When prominent artists painted or sculpted female models, they usually asked them to wear an ao dai.

The dress was further legitimised in the 1950s and 1960s when political figures began wearing it in public. For two decades, the First Lady of South Vietnam, Tran Le Xuan, was a big fan of the outfit. She would wear delicate ao dai for formal events during that time.

communist leader Nguyen Thi Binh took the dress internationally when she wore an ao dai while acting as a representative of the Vietnam Cong during the Paris Peace Accords that ended the US Vietnam War in 1973. During some of the key moments in recent Vietnamese history, this famous garment played a silent but unmistakable role. It is, in many ways, part of the fabric of the nation.