Among traditional national wear across Asia, the Áo Dài [Long shirt], a gown traditionally worn over long trousers, is significant due to its relatively recent development and the traceability of its foreign influences. While it can worn by both men and woman, it has in recent times become less common for males to wear outside of cultural occasions.
The earliest iteration of the Áo Dài dervices from the initial Ming occupation of Vietnam in the 15th century. Traditionally, people of Vietnam have worn clothing resembling Áo Tứ Thân, or long skirt (vấy) and halter top (yếm).
However, the Ming occupiers pushed for Chinese Style long pants to be standard in noble courts, criticizing the skirts that were parts of Áo Tứ Thân as being “violations of Confucian decorum.” The Lê Dynasty would continue this push following overthrow of the Ming from Vietnam, with aristocrats wearing the Áo Giao Lĩnh.
The Nguyễn Dynasty of South Vietnam would continue this push for differentiation when the Nguyễn lord Nguyễn Phúc Khoát decreed that his courts must be differentiated from the Trinh lords. As a result, in 1744, he declared that court wear shall be trousers and gown that shall be buttoned down the front. This was called the Áo Ngũ Thân, and has been described to be the origin of Áo Dài.
Eventually, the Nguyễn Dynasty would take over the rest of Vietnam, and continue using the early Áo Dài as court fashion until Vietnam was colonized by the French, in which western influences would begin percolating through all aspects of Vietnam’s culture, including fashion.
Ao Ngu Than [Early Ao Dai]
With the colonization of Vietnam by the French, the people of Vietnam began adopting aspects of western culture, including notions of modernization. In particular, a key idea was how to merge Vietnamese heritage with western ideas.
Some of the preliminary results of these changes would come in 1933 ,where the Tự Lực văn đoàn (Self-Reliant Literary Group) explored concepts of what a modern Vietnamese woman may be, with the affiliated designer Nguyen Cat Truong promoting Áo Dài Le Mur, a design with an emphasis on being clothing that is “neat, simple, sinewy, artistic, and well-mannered.” This would be accomplished by changing Áo Dài via a removal of the collar, making the sleeves more convenient, narrowing the first at the waist, tidying the tails, and narrowing the trousers. This can be considered an early instance of the modern áo dài.
With the emergence of the Cold War, and the rise of the US and USSR as superpowers, Vietnam would move away by being influenced solely by the French, and instead influenced by other values as well.
In particular, some highlights of this era are the implementation of Áo Dài Raglan in the 1960s by the tailors Dung and Tran Kim. This design was notable for its use of raglan sleeves, a western invention, in which the sleeves are sewed to the torso of the garment at the armpit and shoulder. This helped to minimize crumple marks, and left a smoother gown in the torso. This would also be accompanied by an increased tightening of the fit.
Another concept that was adapted was Áo Dài Hippy in the 1960’s and 70’s, in which gowns would start being more colorful and often times patterned. This was accompanied by the tail of the gown being shortened to the knees, and being worn with a skirt rather than pants.
This design would influence more common áo dài designs to have their tails be narrower and shorter, with the waist not always taken in.
One particular famous influence of áo dài fashion during this time was Tran Le Xuan, or Madame Nhu, the wife of the brother of the South Vietnamese president of the time and advisor, who wore a collarless version of the áo dài. This was particularly important due to the controversy it sparked over what was considered proper decorum for Vietnamese people.
During and following the Vietnam War, the Communist government of Vietnam had discouraged Áo Dài as being overly decadent and bourgeois.
However, after some economic growth and increased reforms, there was a resurgence of popularity for Áo Dài in Vietnam. In the late 80’s, the state had began to adopt it as a uniform in various government capacities including schools and government buildings.
The popularity would increase such that in 1989, Saigon hosted the first Miss Áo Dài contest, and more famously, in 1995 blue brocade áo dài design by Ngan An won best national costume at the Miss International Pageant.
Today, other modern designers such as Minh Hanh, Le Si Hoang, and others have been experimenting with áo dài designs, attempting to modernize the materials and design to account for modern lifestyles.