The ao dai is Vietnam’s iconic traditional dress symbolizing beauty, elegance, and Vietnamese identity. In Vietnamese, ‘áodài’ means ‘long shirt’. In the south it is pronounced as “ow zai”, in the north as “ow yai”.
Ao Dai in Modern Society
The ao dai is usually worn by women. Although men can also wear the male version of ao dai, in modern days it is becoming less common.
The typical modern female ao dai is a tight-fitting long silk dress with long sleeves, worn over long pants reaching the floor. It gives the wearer a simple yet flattering profile.
Ao dai has been said to be an outfit which ‘covers everything but hides nothing’, because even though it covers most parts of the body, it is still a sensual outfit, with its tight-fit and long slits up the sides.
In modern times, ao dai are worn for special occasions, such as weddings, Tết celebrations, and other formal occasions. Ao dai are also commonly worn as uniforms for women, whether for civil servants, tour guides, hotel staff, or high school girls.
Variations and Patterns
Ao dai come in many variations of color, pattern, length, and collar.
Colors of ao dai vary with age. Young girls often wear pure white, symbolizing purity. Hence, high school girls’ uniform is commonly a white ao dai. Older but unmarried girls wear soft pastel colors, while older married women usually wear ao dai in richer and darker colors.
The ao dai can vary in length between knee-length to ankle-length, but it is always worn on top of long pants and never short pants. The collar of the ao dai also varies from mandarin to boat-style.
History of Ao Dai
Even though the ao dai is perceived as the symbol for traditional Vietnamese identity and femininity, its current form has only emerged after substantial foreign influence, making it the ao dai we know today.
The word ‘ao dai’ was originally used in the 18th century, during the Nguyen dynasty when Chinese-style clothing was mandated.
Ao dai was the name for a specific outfit that was used at the court of the Nguyen Lords in Hue, to distinguish them from other courtiers.
The outfit evolved into the áongũthân, a five-paneled aristocratic gown worn in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Throughout the 20th century, ao dai underwent a lot of changes.
In the 1920s and 1930s during French colonialism, the outfit was redesigned as a modern dress by a French-trained Vietnamese artist named Cat Tuong, or Le Mur. He combined the western dress style with the traditional ao dai. During this time, ao dai began to be promoted as national costume for the modern era.
In the 1950’s, Saigon designers tightened the fit to make it more appealing. Madame Nhu, sister-in-law of President Ngo Dinh Diem, popularized the new tight-fitting version of the ao dai with the boat-neck, considered controversial at the time due to its sensuality.
The tight-fitting feature of ao dai means that you need to get one tailor-made for you. The good news is there are many tailors who can do this for you within a day, whether in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, or Hoi An City.
As part of our tour in Vietnam, we will visit Hoi An, where you can put on a traditional ao dai and be taken around this historic charming town with a professional photographer, and bring home beautiful photos.
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