Hoang Anh has been wearing an ao dai since her high school days, when it was the uniform. The traditional tight-fitting silk top worn over the same colour pants remains her preferred outfit for important occasions like graduations or weddings. But this lunar new year, when Hanoi experienced an exceptionally warm spell of weather, she turned to a reformed, modern design when she went out with friends. This version has slits that extended above the waist and panels that reach down only to the knee. The conventional long pants were replaced by skinny jeans, which provided her with much more comfort and a charming and chic look. Taking a long stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake, Hoang Anh and her girlfriends enjoyed plenty of admiration and curiosity from passers-by.
Hoang Anh is among many enthusiasts celebrating this sensational fashion trend this Spring. On the streets of Hanoi and HCMC the ao dai is seeing a definite upswing, in more vivid colours, sophisticated materials, and contemporary cuts and forms.
The ao dai is a unique symbol of Vietnamese feminine beauty but has always been in a state of cultural metamorphosis. Its history is one of being constantly adapted and revised, now becoming a seamlessly blend of East and West.
From being plain and loosely fitting, unflattering to the female body, and worn by peasant women in the north, French-trained artists Cat Tuong and Le Pho popularised a variation of the ao dai with features borrowed from the four-panel ao tu than and French fashion outfits. The ao dai morphed from plainness to beauty and sensuality. Tran Le Xuan (aka Madame Nhu) later promoted a version of open necklines when appearing on the cover of Time magazine. The outfit then experienced a period of neglect during the 70s and 80s before regaining its statue in the early 90s when the economy took a new course and the purchasing power of Vietnamese, especially younger women, rose considerably.
These days the ao dai is the choice of many women for both special occasions and everyday wear: at schools, at the office, or going out with friends. It can be worn on first dates, on a foreign holiday, or on a daily walk, by moms and daughters.
While wearing the ao dai still suggests a desire to retain Vietnamese culture and identity, it needs subtle changes to keep up with modernity. From the north to the south designers make every effort to retain the femininity and aesthetics while still taking into consideration its practical use and convenience for wearers.
A traditional ao dai often fits tight around a mandarin neckline and the breasts and is split on the sides from the waist to well below the knees, with loose pants worn underneath. The improvised versions typically have shorter panels and open necklines in a square, V, or round shape. Many also have shorter sleeves and the flowing pants are swapped for skinny jeans, tight khaki trousers, hippy culottes, or even an A-shaped skirt, to create a more edgy feel. While once the only material used was fine silk, nowadays it can span from cotton and linen to denim or even chiffon.
Taking the lead in this trend are noted designers such as Chuong Dang, the mastermind behind the brand Chuong Dang - Kujeans, Thuy Nguyen from Thuy Design House, and Dieu Anh of Les Saigonais.
While Chuong Dang was a pioneer in creating ao dai with comfortable materials like linen and cotton, Thuy Nguyen attempted to differentiate by using elaborately embroidered silk in bright theatrical colours. This year was the first time Dieu Anh tried her hand at the ao dai. Bringing a more feminine approach, her collection was well received thanks to it adding a personal touch to the original form.
The latest trend of mini ao dai also pays tribute to fashion boutiques such as Huu La La, Nau Corner, Tim&Tay, BoxShop, Py by Ying Ying, and AnAn House, which are now all the rage in Vietnam.
Thuan Huu, starting with a modest stall at a HCMC weekend flea market, specialises in making hand-embroidered ao dai. Her business quickly expanded to three shops under the name Huu La La in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, with some personal exhibitions also staged. With more loose-fitting designs, Huu La La’s outfits cater to women of all ages and shapes. ‘My ao dai are created for everyone, whether they have a perfect shape or not,’ she said. She hopes her modern designs will encourage young women to wear ao dai more often.
As the traditional form-fitting outfit can make it quite difficult to comfortably move around, the practicality and modernity of the new designs have been fully embraced by younger customers. Thu An, who previously kept her rarely worn ao dai in the wardrobe, now believes that with her newly-purchased mini ao dai she will feel comfortable wearing it either to work or when going out. Phuong Thao also confessed her love for her new ao dai collection, saying she has bought five since the beginning of the year. ‘I prefer to wear ao dai now, even though the price is not cheap,’ she said. ‘It is not just another garment. For me, it reveals my personality.’
Memories of graceful women wearing sensual ao dai have been common down through many generations. But with young designers weaving the cultural heritage with contemporary influences, the ao dai is enjoying a renaissance among Vietnamese women. The metamorphosis of the country’s iconic outfit is once again experiencing a new turn.