By Adrian Ɖặng Bảo Oánh
Áo Dài is the name of a dress that is not only traditional in the Vietnamese culture; it has been deemed the Vietnamese National Dress. Although the design is not unisex; it does offer a female and a male version. The female Áo Dài is more form fitting and the men wear their version of Áo Dài in a loose fashion.
There is no reliable record of exactly when the design and introduction of Áo Dài to the populace occurred. It is believed that Áo Dài came into existence in the 1920s. It bears vague resemblance to the Chinese Xường Xám. However, it is neither a copy of the Xường Xám dress, nor is it a derivative of this dress in any way. The Áo Dài is as ethnically Vietnamese as it can be.
The design of the lady’s Áo Dài hugs the body with delicate fabrics. People use thin, flowing fabrics to make every day Áo Dài. For formal events and occasions, the employment of fabrics would lean toward fancier varieties such as silk or velour. Áo Dài is best described as a tunic with a full coverage from the neck down to the waist. Then it splits on both sides at the waist revealing a tiny bit of bare skin, and it gives way to a front and back flap or tab. The original Áo Dài had an old-fashioned tall and formal looking collar. Later on, designers introduced other neck arrangements such as square, low cut oval necks, etc. The sleeves were straight and slim in the beginning. Now we see flared sleeves, puffy sleeves at the top of the arms, tapered sleeves, and other designs. The front and rear tabs also change back and forth in lengths. Many people still stick to the classic design of Áo Dài because it is pretty and timeless. Áo Dài were mostly plain in single color in the olden days. Nowadays, Áo Dài are more colorful with embroidery, prints, hand-painted artwork on them. They now come in many more colors as compared to the past. Originally, women wore Áo Dài with black or white pants made of satin or silk. In modern days, colorful Áo Dài may be worn with pants in matching or contrasting colors. The pants, in any case, must not overpower the dress with their colors or designs. The entire outfit also looks good with high heels. There are also headgears to compliment different styles of Áo Dài. The simplest one is the cone-shaped hat made of woven dried leaves. The fancier headwear to go with Áo Dài would be like a queen’s crown. The hair wraps in velvet of different colors are also pretty and popular, especially in North Vietnam. There is also a variety of other headwear more associated with an occupation such as a wide-brim hat that used to be worn by performing artists.
The Áo Dài has been the Vietnamese National Dress for a century; therefore, many public all-girls high schools mandate that students wear Áo Dài as the school uniform. The Áo Dài uniform is usually white with the small school’s insignia sewn on near the neck. There are also schools that adopt blue or purple-colored Áo Dài as their uniforms.
The men’s Áo Dài comes generally in two styles: the fancy style and the diplomatic style. The fancy style is tailored using rich fabrics such as thicker silks. The men’s Áo Dài also looks like a tunic with front and back flaps or tabs. These garments are tailored to be worn more loosely over the body. This style would be a touch colorful, but not quite as colorful as the lady’s Áo Dài can be. The common colors are blue, gold, burgundy, and sometimes purple. They usually have embroidered or printed round gold or silver seals on them. The diplomats and government officials prefer the diplomatic style. This style is always black in color. The thinner, veil or mesh-like fabrics are employed here. The see-though diplomatic men’s Áo Dài is worn over a white underlying suit. Men would wear the diplomatic-style Áo Dài to work in governmental offices, to go to formal meetings, or to visit higher-ranking officers. Even scholars and teachers like to wear this style at any given time. The fancy-style Áo Dài is worn during big fancy events like New Year, weddings, parties, holidays, etc. In the modern day, Vietnamese men do not wear Áo Dài as readily on a normal day as women would. They save their Áo Dài for special occasions. To be properly dressed, a men’s Áo Dài would not be complete without the matching headwear to accompany it. The men’s headwear would resemble the women’s formal headgear that comes with their Áo Dài. However, playful men wear Áo Dài without the hat to show a little bit of a carefree attitude.
To the eyes of the non-Vietnamese observers, Áo Dài may appear to be pretty, interesting, or even weird. Much of it really depends on who tailored the outfit, and who is wearing it. Just like any kind of attire from any part of the world, fashion’s positive or negative is owed very much to the designer and who wears it, and how it is presented to the judging public. The best traits of the design have to be properly exhibited. We have very good looking Áo Dài-clad people, and a few not so impressive Áo Dài wearers. To be fair, please attend a sizeable Vietnamese gathering where one has the opportunity to see many Áo Dài floating around and arrive at your own judgments. Nevertheless, we know now when we see Áo Dài out there in public. It is a Vietnamese design, and the Vietnamese folks are downright proud of it for a century to this date! If you like what you see, perhaps you should have one made for yourself. You might be pleasantly surprised!