The Alluring Ao Dai

by Michael Buckley
(excerpted from the Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Handbook by Moon Publications).

The Ao Dai

One of the first things the visitor notices on a trip to Vietnam is schoolgirls riding bicycles three or four abreast, the panels of their long ao dai dresses billowing behind them like orchid petals. Or, on a Boeing run by Vietnam Airlines, flight attendants in beautiful sky-blue or pink ao dais. Anthony Grey described the ao dai in his novel Saigon as "demure and provocative ... women seemed not to walk but to float gently beneath the tamarinds on the evening breeze." The ao dai covers everything, but its gossamer-thin fabric hides almost nothing. It's very practical, maintaining modesty but allowing ventilation and freedom of movement. It does not crush, and dries quickly after washing.
Ao dai means long gown, and is pronounced "ow yai" in the south and "ow zai" in the north. It's a close-fitting knee-length gown, split to the waist and worn over flowing white or black satin pants. The gown features a high collar and tight sleeves. The ao dai

is adapted from a Chinese dress, called the cheong sam originally worn by both sexes. Pants and buttoned coats were worn by men and women during the latter years of the Nguyen dynasty. In traditional society, design and color indicated the status of the wearer: yellow fabric was reserved for the emperor, purple for high-ranking mandarins, blue for court officials. The emperor alone could use gold brocade and the five-claw dragon design. Emperor Minh Mang imposed the wearing of pants on the entire female population of Vietnam.

The ao dai is of recent design. In the early 1930s Cat Tuong, a Vietnamese writer who dabbled in fashion design, modified the cheong sam. The new design tightened the bodice and moved the opening from the front to the shoulder and side seam. Cat Tuong also employed a greater range of colors and motifs for the ao dai. In the 1950s, two tailors in Saigon incorporated raglan sleeves into the design, with seams running diagonally from the collar to the underarm. As the ao dai evolved it became less popular as dress for men.

Between 1975 and the late 1980s, in a period of severe austerity, the ao dai fell from grace, and Vietnamese women switched to Western-style blouses and pants. Since 1990, however, the ao dai has made a bold comeback as the national dress. It is the dress seen in tourist advertising, and is worn by hotel receptionists and office workers, particularly in the south. Spectacular ao dais with handpainted designs on the bodice are worn for holidays--especially at Tet--and for weddings.

Although ao dais in standard sizes are mass-produced for work and school uniforms, Vietnamese women prefer custom-made versions. At a Saigon tailor shop, a team of specialized cutters, sewers, and fitters can mold an ensemble in several hours. The resulting ao dai fits the woman's figure perfectly.

Michael Buckley is author of the newly-published Heartlands. He has also written the Tibet Travel Adventure Guide, Moon's Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos Travel Handbook, Cycling to Xian , Tibet, and has guided VeloAsia tours in Sumatra and Vietnam.


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