By Trinh Thi Thu Phuong – CIMAS

Each nation in the world has its own costume reflecting its distinguished tradition and culture. Like Kimono and Handbok, the traditional clothes of Japanese and Korean people respectively, ao dai is the national costume of Vietnam. It is often called “ao dai Vietnam” to associate it with Vietnamese patriotism. The charming beauty of a Vietnamese lady in ao dai will be deeply engraved in the memories of those foreigners who have ever been to Vietnam. Looking at the way a foreigner gazing at a slender girl dressed in graceful ao dai, we know that the person can’t help looking forward to seeing this image again.
Vietnam’s history can be traced back to four thousand years ago. During such long span, Vietnam has been under Chinese occupation for nearly one thousand years, under French colonization for approximately 80 years, and under the fight against American invaders for about 30 years to obtain the independence and protect Vietnamese culture. Even though experiencing a really long period of strong foreign influence, Vietnamese people has been striving to maintain and develop their country’s unique features. One of them is ao dai.

No one knows for sure what the true origin of the ao dai is. However, according to some historical documents, ao dai was firstly designed in the 18th century when Lord Nguyen Phuc Khoat (1714-1765) governed the South Vietnam. The early form of ao dai for the female was generated based on the combination of Cham’s (the Cham or Cham people are one of ethnic minorities in Vietnam) dress and Chinese’s Cheongsam (also known as Chipao in Mandarin).

The ao dai, keeping pace with the fashion fad, has continuously been modified to meet the taste of customers. It underwent the biggest modification in 1960s. Nowadays, ao dai has evolved into plenty of colors and materials with a variety of collars and sleeve styles for customers to select. Normally, ao dai is made of smooth silk or soft fabric. The material may be of plain color or of floral pattern. Decorating items on the fancy ao dais may range from cultural symbols to modern patterns with embroideries, spangles, laces, and/or ribbons. Ao dai may be collared or collarless, up to the preference or the body shape of the wearer.

Currently, the ao dai, a long dress almost exclusively for female, consists of two flaps stretching from the neck to the ankles of the wearer. It is a tight-fitting silk tunic worn over wide pantaloons reaching the floor. The downward splits along the two sides of waist help to bring about the softness and slightness image to ao dai. The modern form of ao dai fits tightly around the wearer’s upper torso, showcasing females’ body curves. Although the dress covers the entire body, it is thought to be provocative, especially when it is made of thin fabric. No wonder it is said that “The ao dai covers everything, but hides nothing”.

In order to create the most graceful look and fit each customer’s shape, the ao dai must be made individually. Ao dai therefore can not be produced massively. It must be ordered and made one by one by highly-skilled tailors. If you want to have an ao dai that fits your body, it must be customized as such garment is not available for sale. To ensure that the tailor-made ao dai can fit you well, you are required to try it on in person before your own ao dai is completed.

In Vietnam, the female of different ages can be dressed in ao dai. It becomes the standard costume for formal occasions such as national celebrations, wedding ceremony, new-year festival, graduation ceremony or important contests. When a woman attends special events or appears on TV programs, she often chooses ao dai as her favorite clothes because ao dai can suit and flatter her figure. Women dressed in ao dai are often seen in Vietnamese governmental representative agencies. Ao dai is also the uniform of high schoolgirls and air hostesses. The image of ao dai on the flights of Vietnam Airlines is really familiar to worldwide passengers. It can be said that ao dai has contributed to promoting Vietnam to the external world.

As a result of booming fashion industry, millions of new outfit designs hit the market each day. However, many of them are quickly left behind after a short time of popularity. Through centuries, ao dai still maintains its top position in the hearts of Vietnamese women. Ao dai does not fall away into the past. In contrast, it is diversified along with time. The beauty and grace of ao dai, therefore, consists in the exquisite combination of both traditional and modern elements.

There’s almost nowhere in the world that the contests of traditional costumes design are held as annually as in Vietnam. The ao dai contest is really a golden chance for all fashion designers to show off their talents and their love for such special clothes. On the principle of keeping its core feature, designers may produce any variation to ao dai to enrich the invaluable collection of Vietnamese ao dai.

The importance of ao dai in cultural life of Vietnamese people are also indicated in Beauty Contest in which ao dai is a compulsory part of all candidates. The organizers even reserve one special prize for the lady who looks best in ao dai. Overseas Vietnamese, though living away from motherland, still keep this tradition vibrant by holding “Miss Ao Dai” pageants annually. To them, ao dai is Vietnam’s soul, other than a national symbol. Inherited from the ancestors and treasured by Vietnamese people throughout generations, ao dai is posed to receive international recognition as a masterpiece on the “World Intangible Heritage” list by the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) for safeguarding its sustainability.

Vietnam is well-known not only for its glorious victory against enemies in the war but also for the traditional ao dai all over the world. The flowing ao dai has long been the lasting inspiration to generations of poets, composers, and painters in Vietnam, in addition to the fashion designers. Ao dai, with its unique charm and aesthetic value, can even conquer the hearts of many people who are considered the hardest and toughest.

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