The ao dai is a Vietnamese national costume primarily for women. In its current form, it is a tight-fitting silk dress worn over pantaloons. is pronounced (ow yai) in the South, and (ow zai) in the North. is derived from a Middle Chinese word meaning “padded coat” .In modern Vietnamese, o refers to an item of clothing that covers from the neck down. Di means “long.”
In Vietnamese, the word i was applied to various garments historically, including the o ngu th?n, a 19th century aristocratic gown influenced by Manchu Chinese fashions. Inspired by Paris fashions, Hanoi artist Nguy?n Ct Tu?ng redesigned the o ngu th?n as a dress in 1930. 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. The communists, who have ruled Vietnam since 1975, disapproved of the dress and favored frugal, androgynous styles. In the 1990s, the ao dai regained popularity. The equivalent garment for men, called an (“brocade robe”), is also worn on occasion, such as during Tet, at weddings or death anniversaries. Today however, the m is most frequently worn by old men.
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.
Peasant women typically wore a skirt and halter top . Influenced by the fashions of China’s imperial court, aristocrats favored less revealing clothes. In 1744, Lord decreed that both men and women at his court wear trousers and a gown with buttons down the front. The members of the southern court were thus distinguished from the courtiers of the Tr?nh Lords in Hanoi, who wore a split-sided jacket and a long skirt.
a traditional four-paneled gown, evolved into the five-paneled ngu th in the early 19th century. Ngu is Sino-Vietnamese for “five.” It refers not only to the number of panels, but also to the five elements in oriental cosmology. The had a loose fit and sometimes had wide sleeves. Wearers could display their prosperity by putting on multiple layers of fabric, which at that time was costly. Despite Vietnam’s tropical climate, aristocrats were known to wear three to five layers.
The had two flaps sewn together in the back, two flaps sewn together in the front, and a “baby flap” hidden underneath the main front flap. The gown appeared to have two-flaps with slits on both sides, features preserved in the later ao dai. Compared to a modern ao dai, the front and back flaps were much broader and the fit looser. It had a high collar and was buttoned in the same fashion as a modern ao dai. Women could wear the dress with the top few buttons undone, revealing a glimpse of their y?m underneath.
In 1930, Hanoi artist also known as Le Mur, designed a dress inspired by the 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 multiple layers and thick flaps disappeared. Modern texile manufacture allowed for wider panels, eliminating the need to sew narrow panels together. The Le Mur, or “trendy” ao dai, created a sensation when model Nguy?n Th? H?u wore it for a feature published by the newspaper Today in January 1935. The style was promoted by the artists of T? L?c van (“Self-Reliant Literary Group”) as a national costume for the modern era. The painter introduced several popular styles of ao dai beginning in 1934. Such Westernized garments temporarily disappeared during World War II (1939-45).
In the 1950s, Saigon designers tightened the fit of the ao dai to create the version commonly seen today. Tr?n Kim of Thi?t L?p Tailors and Dung of Dung Tailors created a dress with raglan sleeves and a diagonal seam that runs from the collar to the underarm. The infamous Madame Nhu, first lady of South Vietnam, popularized a collarless version beginning in 1958. The ao dai was most popular from 1960 to 1975. A brightly colored hippy was introduced in 1968. The mini, a version designed for practical use and convenience, had slits that extended above the waist and panels that reached only to the knee.
The ao dai has always been more common in the South than in the North. The communists, who gained power in the North in 1954 and in the South in the 1975, had conflicted feelings about the ao dai. They praised it as a national costume and one was worn to the Paris Peace Conference (1968-73) by Vietcong negotiator. Yet Westernized versions of the dress and those associated with “decadent” Saigon of the 1960s and early 1970s were condemned. Economic crisis, famine, and war with Cambodia combined to make the 1980s a fashion low point. The ao dai was rarely worn except at weddings and other formal occasions, with the older, looser-fitting style preferred. Overseas Vietnamese, meanwhile, kept tradition alive with “Miss Ao Dai” pageants , the most notable one held annually in Long Beach, California.
The ao dai experienced a revival beginning in late 1980s, when state enterprise and schools began adopting the dress as a uniform again.In 1989, 16,000 Vietnamese attended a Miss Ao Dai Beauty Contest held in Hochiminh City (formerly Saigon). When the Miss International Pageant in Tokyo gave its “Best National Costume” award to an ao dai-clad Tru?ng Qu?nh Mai in 1995, Th?i Trang Tr? (New Fashion Magazine) gushed that Vietnam’s “national soul” was “once again honored.” An “ao dai craze” followed that that lasted for several years and led to wider use of the dress as a school uniform.
No longer controversial politically, ao dai fashion design is supported by the Vietnamese government. Designer Le Si Hoang is a celebrity in Vietnam and his shop in Hochiminh City is the place to visit for those who admire the dress. In Hanoi, tourists get fitted for ao dai on Luong Van Can Street. The elegant city of Hu? in the central region is known for its ao dai, (leaf hats), and well-dressed women.
The ao dai is now standard for weddings, for celebrating T?t 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 U.S. and about $40 in Vietnam.Tourists are often charged double.
“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 links 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 appears in many movies with Vietnam-related themes. 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. 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.
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