Clothing designs and fashions are forever changing and through the ages have played an important role in the historical, spiritual and cultural development of a country and its people.
During Vietnam’s imperial period clothes denoted the wearer’s power and position in society. Materials and colours had symbolic significance: for instance, yellow indicated power and wealth and could therefore only be worn by royalty. The Emperor’s clothing was known as Long bao, meaning dragon robe, since the dragon is the symbol of supreme power. It was made from yellow silk or satin and embroidered with golden dragons and jewels. The royal family also had its own costume of silk trousers, brocade robes and sandals embroidered with jewels and phoenix wings - another symbol of nobility. Common garb was simpler: women wore a silk brassiere blouse and a four-panel silk dress.
With his position of supreme power, the emperor could decide what his subjects wore. For example, in 1665 the Le Dynasty ruler Le Huyen Tong banned the wearing of trousers by women. His edict stood for almost three centuries, until Minh Mang, who ruled from 1820 to 1840, reversed it by making trousers compulsory.
With today’s greater individual freedom, what to wear is an entirely personal decision dictated solely by individual preference. Instead of fashion decreed from on high, it is created by designers who attempt to reflect the attitudes and tastes of the day in styles that once changed from one generation to the next but nowadays change every year if not more frequently.
Not that long ago, for instance, few women in Vietnam would have been caught dead in jeans and a T-shirt. Most wore the traditional white blouse and black trousers. However, during the years of war these blouses changed colour, from military khaki, workers’ navy blue and classical white and now are seen in every colour of the rainbow.
Today a vast array of up-to-the-minute foreign designs is available locally. Clothes have become simpler and more convenient, and are worn as much to express individual character as for warmth or modesty.
From the yem dao to the ao dai, blouses are an indispensable part of the traditional Vietnamese wardrobe. The costumes have seen considerable changes in colour and design over the years to make them appropriate for people’s tastes, but they still preserve traditional values.
A girl in ao yem. Photo: Ao dai Museum
In the old days the yem dao was a typical Vietnamese undergarment worn by Vietnamese women from all walks of life. The origin of the unique costume is still unclear, but many researchers have shown that the first version appeared in the 12th century under the Ly Dynasty. Yem dao refers to an ancient Vietnamese bodice used primarily as an undergarment that was once worn by Vietnamese women across all classes. It is a simple garment with many variations from its basic form, which is a simple, usually diamond or square-cut piece of cloth draped over a woman’s chest with strings to tie at the neck and back. The yem dao was most usually worn underneath a blouse or overcoat, for modesty’s sake.
Although modern Vietnamese woman now no longer wears it the yem dao still plays a vital role in a number of traditional performances, as the embodiment of seductiveness and femininity of Vietnamese women.
Ao tu than (four-part dress) and khan van (rolling scarf)
Ao tu than. Photo: Ao dai Museum
Swaying pigtails protruding from a rolled scarf and a silk robe with a traditional red belt and conical palm hat in hand is the perfect picture of a Vietnamese woman of years past. The ao tu than, or four-part dress, is one of several traditional Vietnamese costumes. Besides the more widely recognised ao dai, the ao tu than is the other more commonly worn costume in the country. Originating in the 12th century, it started off as a common peasant dress, which is perhaps why it was often in dark browns and blacks. Although most ao tu than made today are extremely colourful, it’s interesting to note that ancient Vietnamese apparently preferred more muted colours, according to noted Vietnamese Court Gown Restorer Trinh Bach. There are many different styles of ao tu than when it comes to colour, material, designs, adornments, and so on. As with all things during feudal times, these different styles often gave away the rank of the wearer in society. Fancier and richer styles would also of course be worn at special festivals or occasions. Regardless of its many different forms, the ao tu than most usually consists of a four-part tunic-jacket (hence its name), which reaches almost to the floor. The back of the tunic consists of one full flap, such as with the ao dai. In the front there are two flaps split from the back flap that are either tied at the waist or left dangling. The jacket-tunic reveals part of the yem dao underneath and the final touch is the silk sashes tied at the waist in myriad styles like belts and most often over the two front tunic flaps.
There was also an adornment often worn with the ao tu than - the khan van rolling scarf. According to tradition the scarf was the first of ten things considered to make a girl charming. The poor would make scarves of cotton dyed black, brown or violet, while the rich sported khan van in silk, gauze, crape or velvet.
Women in ao dai in Saigon, 1955. Photo: Ao dai Museum
The ao dai is famed as the traditional dress of Vietnamese women. With its high neck, tight body with two side flaps and made from soft material, the ao dai has long been admired by many foreigners. Renowned French designer Pierre Cardin said ‘the ao dai looks very sexy but in a discreet, elegant and subtle way; remaining fashionable all the time.’
Today’s ao dai is said to be created by Le Pho, a Fine Arts College graduate, in the 1930s, from a combination of the ancient four-flap Tonkinese tunic and the aristocratic tunic of Hue. His creation was then subtly altered by French designer in what became known as the Le Mur style.
The original ao dai has thus undergone many changes over the centuries but is still worn with pride by Vietnamese women. Often made of silk, it has the potential to make all women look elegant, graceful and beautiful. A perfect combination of traditional beauty and modern style, it is worn for all occasions - in schools or offices, at parties and weddings - and is often adopted by foreign women.
The ao dai is usually worn together with a khan xep, or headdress, on festive occasions and is an essential part of a traditional wedding outfit and the clothes of mandarins and scholars. Folded with even tucks, men’s headdresses are usually flattened while women’s are bigger and more rounded. Depending on the material, an ao dai can be purchased ready-made or tailor-made for as little as VND1,000,000.