The ao dai has a past that isn’t just his own – his story is intertwined with Vietnam’s own national history. Since emerging in its earliest forms in the 18th century, the ao dai has transformed from an aristocratic dress into one of the most iconic symbols of Vietnamese culture and heritage.
Then and now
The story of the ao dai began during the reign of Nguyen Phuc Khoat, a southern lord determined to maintain a distinct identity from his northern rivals, the Trinh lords. In an effort to symbolize the distinction of his people, he ordered that a dress with two flaps be worn at all times, inspired by the Cham people who originally lived in the area. Very simple and unflattering, the first version of the Southern two-flap dress was a far cry from the chic modern silk dress.
When the power of the Nguyen lords finally expanded to the northern regions after the defeat of the Trinh lords, the Cham-inspired two-panel dress came along. The traditional four-panel northern style dress turned into a combination of the southern Cham style and the original northern dress, becoming a five-panel dress that was popular all over the country.
The transformation from traditional dress to everyday fashion took place in the 1930s, when a group of French-trained artists combined the design of the then-popular five-flap dress with a French fashion dress. With a slimmer silhouette and more fashionable style, model Nguyen Thi Hau wore the artist’s creation in a spread for Today newspaper. Soon after, the modern ao dai became a symbol of femininity and style for Vietnamese women and a staple of high fashion in the country. From 1960 to 1975, the ao dai was a signature outfit for South Vietnamese women.
However, during the tumultuous post-war years, the western-influenced ao dai was virtually banned for its association with what was coined as “capitalist decadence.” The ao dai disappeared from everyday fashion for nearly two decades after the war—instead, it was replaced by the looser and older version usually worn at weddings and formal events—until it resurfaced in Vietnamese wardrobes in the 1980s. women. Starting out as a high school uniform for girls, the ao dai slowly made a comeback as the style of choice for formal occasions and traditional ceremonies.
The Ao Dai today
Today, the ao dai has both traditional meaning and hints of modern styling. While the silhouette remains almost the same, modern ao dai are often designed with shorter sleeves, flared necklines and skirts that are cut shorter, sometimes reaching the knee instead of the traditional floor length. Even now, the ao dai is common for weddings, formal events, and school uniforms.
And although the ao dai is worn by Vietnamese women of all ages, colors have meaning for women of different status and age. Whites and pastels are usually reserved for younger and unmarried women to symbolize innocence and purity, while older women often wear soft pastels. Married women often wear deeper, richer colors such as red, orange, or black.
The ao dai is not just a symbol of Vietnamese culture and style – it is a modern testament to Vietnam’s fascinating and diverse history. Most oa dai are tailored to achieve what is one of the most flattering fits in fashion. As a souvenir, a high-quality ao dai certainly costs more than other trinkets and souvenirs, but it is a perfect opportunity to take home a piece of Vietnamese history that is still an integral part of the culture, traditions and pride of the country.
There is more culture to discover in beautiful Vietnam than just the ao dai. Experience the very best of Vietnam on a 12-day trip to the country’s highlights!