A close friend of mine once claimed that fashion sense dies somewhere east of Prague, and given the clothing required to battle the weather conditions in the former Soviet states I tend to agree with him. Moving further along into Central Asia doesn’t tend to improve matters either, as functionality continues to be favoured over frivolity. It’s only when we get to the subcontinent that this trend begins to be bucked with the colour and vibrancy of South Asian clothing. However, there still seems to be too much of an over-reliance on gold, sequins and tassels that often drags the Indian sense of style into the realms of the gaudy. Russia is best left alone entirely and despite the best efforts of Shanghai Fashion Week, China remains the land where neon is King. If you are looking for a country where people are generally stylish, you might need to go all the way to South Korea or Japan before you find places that provide an argument against my friend’s assertion. But Southeast Asia, and Vietnam in particular, has a sneaky fashion sensibility that flies under the radar of most people not living in the region.
Perhaps it was a parting gift from the French, along with baguettes and pâté, but the Vietnamese tend to have retained a knowledge of what makes a person look good. This effect can be seen in some cases among the older generation, as many men still adopt the original French outfit of Breton striped t-shirt, navy blue blazer and beret as they cycle around town or stroll around the lake. Close-fitting, often tailored shirts are the norm for most men, both for work and play, and trousers, usually khakis, tend to be favoured over shorts, even in the height of summer. All of this adds up to the average man on the street being pretty well dressed, xe om drivers excluded of course.
The women of Vietnam are no slouches either when it comes to putting thought into their appearance. It can be something of a shock for a foreigner to walk into a new workplace for the first time, even somewhere as innocuous as an office or a language centre, to find the majority of the women dressed up as if they were about to paint the town red, when in reality the closest they would come to any painting would be producing a stack of photocopies. While men tend on the whole to eschew clothing that shows a lot of leg, when it comes to the fairer sex Vietnam is firmly entrenched as the country of hot pants. The go-to choice for most women falling between adolescence and middle age, these short shorts are the unofficial uniform of half the population when the weather is hot. An especially amusing sight during these months is the combination of these tiny shorts with a long, loose, Korean-style shirt, making it appear that this individual has forgotten to put pants on when leaving the house that morning.
It seems that the current crop of youth, those predominantly born after the millennium, have become the first generation to fully adopt a Western style ethic from the outset. Brands like Bo Sua (Boo City), with their irreverent graphics and tongue in cheek slogans, are extremely popular among teens and the hip hop and skater aesthetics are becoming ever more commonplace. Nowhere is this more apparent than in HCMC, where things have escalated into something of an arms race as young people constantly try to top each other in the chic stakes. Some of the designs being worn in the country’s largest city look like they have been taken straight off the catwalks of New York or Milan and appear to be just as impractical and uncomfortable as their designer counterparts.
There are few places that can boast a more elegant and attractive national costume than Vietnam and its ao dai. The tight-fitting silk tunic worn with silk pants, which is both eye-catching and refined at the same time, is ever present on special occasions and national holiday celebrations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the modern form evolved from the costumes of the Royal Court by way of gay 1920s Paris, and that European touch is still clear to see in today’s version. The one proviso of this type of clothing is that, given the way it is cut, only those with a slender figure are truly able to pull it off. Now, in Vietnam, where slim to the point of skinny is de rigeur for most women, this is not an issue, but for Western women with broader shoulders, bigger busts and on the whole a bit more heft, this proves to be something of a problem.
The difference in sizes extends to more than just the ao dai however. I’m blessed to be not far off Vietnamese proportions, making shopping for clothes something of a breeze, but for any person taller than the average foreigner it’s an exercise in futility. For these unfortunate souls, trying to find clothes off the rack that fit is like to trying to get a Hanioan to say hủ tiếu makes a better breakfast than phở; nigh on impossible. My best friend had to resort to buying a pair of wooden Japanese sandals as they were the only things that could fit his, by Vietnamese standards, gargantuan feet. Luckily for most people who are left with zero high street options, Vietnam also happens to have an abundance of skilful, reasonably priced tailors. Rather than worrying about trying to find a pre-made shirt that doesn’t look laughable on their frame, they can instead get a custom designed shirt for pretty much the same price and look fabulous.
Vietnam might not be the first, second or even tenth place to spring to mind when thinking about fashion but it’s far closer to the top of the list than to the bottom. Studios such as Chula are bringing their own fusion twists on traditional Vietnamese outfits and others like Kelly Bui are offering sleek designs that wouldn’t be out of place in any of the major fashion capitals of the world. The current generation of teens and young adults continue to push the envelope when it comes to daring and unique ensembles and what once was once considered taboo and risqué is now the prevalent trend. However, this is all just the icing on the cake. Vietnam has been an oasis of style in a relative desert for a long time now and will continue to do its own thing and surely look great in the process.