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The áo dài is a Vietnamese national costume, now most commonly worn by women. In its current form, it is a tight-fitting silk tunic worn over pantaloons. The word is pronounced ow zhai in the North and ow yai in the South of the country. Áo is derived from a Middle Chinese word meaning “padded coat” (襖). Dài means “long”.
The word “ao dai” was originally applied to the outfit worn at the court of the Nguyễn Lords at Huế in the 18th century. This outfit evolved into the áo ngũ thân, a five-paneled aristocratic gown worn in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Inspired by Paris fashions, Nguyễn Cát Tường and other artists associated with Hanoi University redesigned the ngũ thân as a modern dress in the 1920s and 1930s. The updated look was promoted by the artists and magazines of Tự Lực văn đoàn (Self-Reliant Literary Group) as a national costume for the modern era. In the 1950s, Saigon designers tightened the fit to produce the version worn by Vietnamese women today. The dress was extremely popular in South Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s. On Tết and other occasions, Vietnamese men may wear an áo gấm (brocade robe), a version of the ao dai made of thicker fabric.
Academic commentary on the ao dai emphasizes the way the dress ties feminine beauty to Vietnamese nationalism, especially in the form of “Miss Ao Dai” pageants, popular both among overseas Vietnamese and in Vietnam itself. “Ao dai” is one of the few Vietnamese words that appear in English-language dictionaries.[nb 1]
Hue‘s Dong Khanh Girl’s High School, which opened in 1917, was widely praised for the ao dai uniform worn by its students. In 1930, Hanoi artist Cát Tường, also known as Le Mur, designed a dress inspired by the áo ngũ thân and by Paris fashions. It reached to the floor and fit the curves of the body by using darts and a nipped-in waist. When fabric became inexpensive, the rationale for multiple layers and thick flaps disappeared. Modern texile manufacture allows for wider panels, eliminating the need to sew narrow panels together. The áo dài Le Mur, or “trendy” ao dai, created a sensation when model Nguyễn Thị Hậu wore it for a feature published by the newspaper Today in January 1935. The style was promoted by the artists of Tự Lực văn đoàn (“Self-Reliant Literary Group”) as a national costume for the modern era. The painter Lê Phô introduced several popular styles of ao dai beginning in 1934. Such Westernized garments temporarily disappeared during World War II (1939–45).
No longer deemed politically controversial, ao dai fashion design is supported by the Vietnamese government. It is often called áo dài Việt Nam to link it to patriotic feelings. Designer Le Si Hoang is a celebrity in Vietnam and his shop in Saigon is the place to visit for those who admire the dress. In Hanoi, tourists get fitted with ao dai on Luong Van Can Street. The elegant city of Huế in the central region is known for its ao dai, nón lá (leaf hats), and well-dressed women.
The ao dai is now standard for weddings, for celebrating Tết and for other formal occasions. A plain white ao dai is a common high school school uniform in the South. Companies often require their female staff to wear uniforms that include the ao dai, so flight attendants, receptionists, restaurant staff, and hotel workers in Vietnam may be seen wearing it.
The most popular style of ao dai fits tightly around the wearer’s upper torso, emphasizing her bust and curves. Although the dress covers the entire body, it is thought to be provocative, especially when it is made of thin fabric. “The ao dai covers everything, but hides nothing”, according to one saying. The dress must be individually fitted and usually requires several weeks for a tailor to complete. An ao dai costs about $200 in the United States and about $40 in Vietnam.
“Symbolically, the ao dai invokes nostalgia and timelessness associated with a gendered image of the homeland for which many Vietnamese people throughout the diaspora yearn”, wrote Nhi T. Lieu, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin. The difficulties of working while wearing an ao dai link the dress to frailty and innocence, she wrote. Vietnamese writers who favor the use of the ao dai as a school uniform cite the inconvenience of wearing it as an advantage, a way of teaching students feminine behavior such as modesty, caution, and a refined manner.
The ao dai is featured in an array of Vietnam-themed or related movies. In Good Morning Vietnam (1987), Robin Williams‘s character is wowed by ao dai-clad women when he first arrives in Saigon. The 1992 films Indochine and The Lover inspired several international fashion houses to design ao dai collections, including Prada‘s SS08 collection and a Georgio Armani collection. In the Vietnamese film The White Silk Dress (2007), an ao dai is the sole legacy that the mother of a poverty-stricken family has to pass on to her daughters. The Hanoi City Complex, a 65-story building now under construction, will have an ao dai-inspired design. Vietnamese designers created ao dai for the contestants in the Miss Universe beauty contest, which was held July 2008 in Nha Trang, Vietnam.