The Vietnamese “Áo dài”

THE VIETNAMESE “ÁO DÀI”

Lạp Chúc Nguyễn Huy (Writer)

Vĩnh Nhơn Lâm Vĩnh Thế (Translator)

Có phải em mang trên áo bay,

(Is it because you wear a flowing dress)

Hai phần gió thổi một phần mây

(Two parts blown by the wind, one by the cloud)

Hay là em gói mây trong áo,

(Or because you pack the cloud in your dress)

Rồi thở cho làn áo trắng bay?

(Then breathe on the white dress to make it fly?)

(Nguyên Sa)

“Culture emanates from the way the Vietnamese people eat, clothe, act, think and live,” declared the scholar Trần Ngọc Ninh. “Áo dài” is the traditional garment for both men and women officially shaped from the four-flap outfit, as decreed by Lord Nguyễn Phúc Khoát (1739-1765). From this original four-flap outfit, the áo dài of Huế was born. This creation, the colorful four-flap attire of the North, and the modern áo dài are now considered as the national dress of the Vietnamese people.

Origin of the áo dài of today

In the middle of the 18th century, a decree by Lord Nguyễn Phúc Khoát regulated the áo dài as follows: “For regular clothing, men and women wear the dress with an upstanding collar; the openings of the sleeves are customizable. Both sides of the outfit, from the armpit down, must be closed, not opened.” (Đại Nam Thực Lục). It also meant that women now had to abandon the skirt, and to wear the trousers instead; and that the dress should be fastened with buttons, with the flaps tightened or knotted.

The áo dài for women regulated and invented by Lord Nguyễn Phúc Khoát was the five-flap dress with an upstanding collar, with fastened buttons, covering the whole body without exposing the underwear. Each flap had two parts attached together on the tops (that was 4 altogether, representing the 4 parents of husband and wife), and the small flap, under the front flap, which is the 5th one, representing the person wearing the dress. This small flap was attached to the two main flaps by the collar having some lining and closed by 5 buttons (made of knitted fabric) representing the Five Cardinal Virtues: Nhân (Benevolence, Charity, Humanity); Nghĩa (Honesty, Uprightness); Lễ (Correct behavior, Politeness, Propriety); Trí (Knowledge); and Tín (Faithfulness, Integrity)[1]. The two terms áo dài and áo tứ thân have been in use since then.

Áo dài năm nút hở bâu

(Áo dài with five buttons and open collar)

Để xem người nghĩa làm dâu thế nào?

(Let’s wait and see how you will behave as the bride?)

Áo đen năm nút viền bâu

(Áo đen with five buttons and a rimmed collar)

Bạn về xứ bạn biết đâu mà tìm.

(You have returned to your country, I don’t know where to find you.)

Under his reign, Emperor Minh Mạng issued a decree to unify clothing in the whole country. His concubines and their servants had to wear áo dài every time they went out of the palaces. Ordinary people had to wear trousers, skirts being forbidden. For adults, áo dài had to be worn when they went out to the streets. This decree has created the peculiar image of the streets of Huế today with women wearing the áo dài nối thân (áo dài with attached flaps, easy to replace when they are worn out by work) selling foods (bún bò = beef noodle, cơm hến = rice with clams, bánh canh = thick rice noodle soup) on the streets. The Northerners composed folk poems ridiculing this decree:

Chiếu vua mùng tám tháng ba,

(That decree dated the 8th day of the 3rd month,)

Cấm quần không đáy người ta hãi hùng.

(Forbidding trousers without bottom terrified the people.)

Also during the reign of Emperor Minh Mạng, from the áo dài regulated by Lord Nguyễn Phúc Khoát two new kinds of áo dài appeared: the áo tứ thân (four-flap dress) in the North and the Huế-style áo dài spreading from Central Vietnam to the Mekong Delta.

Four-flap robe (Áo tứ thân)

The áo tứ thân, daily clothing of women in the North, was a variant form of the outfit shaped and regulated by the Nguyễn Lords. Because it was still under the influence of the garb under the Lê Dynasty, áo tứ thân still kept some traces of áo giao lãnh with the two flaps tapering down; to wear it, people put their two arms into the sleeves, the dress having no buttons, knotting the two front flaps and let them drop down (this style is called áo buông vạt, or attaching the two front flaps and put them in the back (this style is called áo buộc vạt”). Inside the áo dài, women wear a brassiere with closed collar to be discreet.

The áo tứ thân covered the woman’s body from the neck down to about 20 cm below the knee. It had a front flap and a back flap. The front flap was cut into two parts along its length; the part of the dress around the waist was made of two pieces attached together. There were no buttons. To wear the outfit, women just put their two arms in the sleeves. Inside and above the skirt there was a brassiere covering the breast and made of a trapezoid or square piece of fabric and with two strings to be knotted behind the neck and the back; one corner was cut diagonally with two long fabric strings attached to it to be knotted behind the head. The left and right corners also had two fabric strings called dải yếm (brassiere strings) long enough to be knotted behind the back. On top of the brassiere, women also wore a sleeveless blouse in thin fabric. The final garment would be a blue belt to lightly hold the dress between the sleeveless blouse and the skirt.

When at work, women wore brown or black áo tứ thân with skirts made of thick fabric. On ceremony or festival days, they wore áo tứ thân made of thin fabric such as “nhiễu or silk, covering the red or cherry blossom brassiere; they also wore silk skirt with a plum-flower blue belt … The two front flaps were let fall down over the abdomen, in the back the two flaps were joined together (this style was called can tà. If one more flap was added to make the outfit more beautiful, the dress would be called áo ngũ thân (five-flap dress). If the women wanted to show off their wealth, they could add more flaps with different colors and on top of one another; in this case the dress would be called áo mớ ba mớ bảy (dress with three or seven additional flaps), which was the origin of the saying “Nhiều tiền mua áo năm tà, ít tiền may viền hố bâu” (Having much money you can buy five-flap dresses, having little money you can only improve the rim of yours). Áo tứ thân was associated with nón quai thao (in the North) or nón ba tầm for women and the turban for men. It was also associated with brassiere, khăn mỏ quạ (crow-beaked turban) or nón quai thao. The two front flaps were crossed and held tight by the belt around the waist.

The “áo tứ thân” was gradually replaced by the Huế-style áo dài from city to countryside. Today, the “áo tứ thân” keeps only a performing role at traditional festivals.

Nào đâu cái áo tứ thân?

(Where is the four-flap dress?)

Cái khăn mỏ quạ, cái quần nái đen?

(The crow-beaked turban, the black trousers?)

When doing labor work, women wore short sleeveless blouses, or brown short-sleeve blouses, with a round collar, small rims and open edge, and with a brassiere inside. The women in the South usually wore a shirt called “áo bà ba.” When they went out, they usually wore the áo dài with trousers of black fabric.

Huế-style áo dài

The Huế-style áo dài for both men and women was the invention of Lord Nguyễn Võ Vương symbolizing one of the chracteristics of the Huế royal court culture[2]. From the middle of the eighteenth century, the áo dài of Huế has been the paragon for the áo dài of the whole country, and the origin of the traditional áo dài of Vietnam today seen in important and solemn ceremonies, in international beauty pageants …

At that time, the Huế-style áo dài had five flaps: the front and back of the dress had two flaps each, sewn together along the sống áo (the line in the middle of the back of the dress, just like the backbone of the human body); the fifth flap was inside the front of the garment and on the right side. The sleeves were attached just below the elbows (because during that time the width of fabric was only about 40 cm); the collar was about 2 or 3 cm high; the sleeves and the body of the dress were pretty tight. The flaps were widened from the waist down and going down to about the knee. The ends of the flaps were often curved and about 80 cm wide. The trousers to be worn with áo dài were usually made of white fabric. Members of the royal family as well as people from rich families also have sewn quần chít ba (trousers having 3 folds along the outer edges) providing the impression of looseness –looking girly and at the same time feeling very relaxing.

The ambiance of “royal court culture” has always been displayed in the “Huế people’s manner,” i.e., always wearing the nice áo dài when they welcome guests at home or when they go out or when they work as street merchants… These images of the royal court culture have disappeared after 1975 and replaced by the clothing in the proletariat culture. Today, beginning in 1986, the traditional royal court culture has been revived with the image of the familiar and nice áo dài reappearing in the sương khói mờ nhân ảnh (human body image vaguely discerned in the fog and smoke) environment. That was also one element of the Huế-style áo dài manners. It has spread widely all over the country and overseas thanks to the work of modern designers at international fashion shows.

Cô gái Huế yêu thơ và lễ nhạc,

(The Huế girl loving poetry and ceremonial music,)

Tà áo dài trong trắng nhẹ nhàng bay.

(Her innocent white dress floating in the air.)

(Bích Lan)

Innovation

The Huế-style áo dài has been innovated several times.

– Innovation thanks to the imported fabric with larger width

– Innovation by painter Cát Tường

– Innovation by Mrs. Ngô Đình Nhu

First innovation

From the time the larger-width fabrics in different colors were imported, the áo dài of Huế and of other places does not need to have the flaps made of two pieces of fabric joined together at the middle line in the back; the whole flap could go down to about 20 cm above the ankle, looking very soft and nice. From 1917, the female students of the Đồng Khánh public high school had to wear a uniform comprising white trousers and purple áo dài. After that appeared the Empress Nam Phương fashion (“áo tứ thân” plus “khăn đóng hoàng hậu”), which became the traditional clothes reserved for brides in weddings.

Second innovation

Thanks to the production of the larger-width fabric, there was no more need to join the two pieces of the flap and the traditional áo dài began to have just two flaps, one in front and one in the back. Later on, in 1930, the painter Cát Tường (Lemur) transformed the “áo tứ thân” into the áo dài having only two front and back flaps. The flaps were long, almost touching the ground, the body of the robe embraced the curve of the woman’s body, the sleeves were joined to the body of the garment at the embossed shoulders, and the buttons were placed along the right shoulder and side. This new áo dài was worn with white trousers (before that, only men wore white trousers). This innovation was supported by the two magazines Phong Hóa and Ngày Nay. In 1934, the painter Lê Phổ improved the Lemur by getting rid of its overly western characteristics in order to harmonize it with the old “áo ngũ thân”: no sleeve joints, no embossed shoulders, no open collar, the flaps still embracing the women’s body with the lower parts freely flowing. This second innovation has finally shaped the modern áo dài bearing the mark of the westernized urban culture.

Third innovation

At the end of 1956, the áo dài worn by the wife of the presidential advisor Ngô Đình Nhu was the forerunner of the áo dài of today. The innovation by Mrs. Ngô Đình Nhu consisted of:

– Getting rid of the upstanding collar and replacing it with the wide-open collar (in 1960, the Dung tailor shop introduced the new áo dài with the Raglan sleeves)

– Decorative elements on the robe (bamboo branches, plum flowers), and from that time on all kinds of decoration (landscapes, flowers in different colors) have been added on the traditional áo dài.

Thanks to these successive innovations, at the world beauty pageant, the vũ khúc hạc (the crane dance) áo dài, designed with two layers of Empress Nam Phương gown, helped Miss Thùy Lâm’s selection to the group of the ten most beautiful contestants featuring traditional clothes.

After the economic crisis of 1980, the Communists had to “innovate,” i.e., implement the market economy and westernize the society. Therefore, the áo dài of the urban culture, deeply buried in the past, has come back with a vengeance, spreading all over the country just like spring butterflies heralding the return of the Sài Gòn culture of the old days and providing the paragon for the clothing of female students, at festivals, in restaurants and in luxurious hotels.

The resurfacing of the áo dài symbolizes the failure of the forced assimilation of the proletariat culture on the Vietnamese people. This failure became much clearer on the international stage in the ceremony announcing the 2006 joint statement of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) held in Vietnam. All international leaders were wearing the traditional áo dài of the Republic of Vietnam as we can see in the pictures below.

Vietnamese national costume at APEC 2006

National costume of President Ngô Đình Diệm’s era resurfacing at APEC 2006

Mrs. Ngô Đình Nhu-style áo dài

Today, the áo dài from the time of the Republic of Vietnam, originated from the Huế royal court culture and having spread overseas, has become the symbol of the Vietnamese common cultural identity and proved the complete failure of the proletariat cultural revolution.

Culture in the áo dài

The áo dài has created a special cultural element in the Vietnamese costume described in literature, paintings, photography … We have to admit that the slender and gracious áo dài, the side-exposing sexy brassiere, the secret-covering skirt have injected a tremendous inspiring energy into the poets, helping them continuously dream and compose about the traditional costume.

Here is some compelling praise for “Chiếc áo dài Việt Nam” by the poet Đinh Vũ Ngọc:

Chiếc áo quê hương dáng thướt tha,

(How slender and gracious is the dress of our country,)

Non sông gấm vóc mở đôi tà.

(Its two opening flaps revealing our beautiful homeland.)

Tà bên Đông Hải lung linh sóng,

(The right flap exposing the East Sea’s sparkling waves,)

Tà phía Trường Sơn rực rỡ hoa.

(The left flap disclosing the radiant flowers on the Trường Sơn Range.)

Vạt rộng Nam Phần trao cánh gió,

(The large flap edge of South Vietnam giving itself to the wind,)

Vòng eo Trung Việt thắt lưng ngà.

(The waist contour of Central Vietnam embracing the ivory back.)

Nhịp tim Hà Nội nhô lồng ngực,

(Hà Nội’s heart rhythm throbbing in the chest,)

Hương lúa ba miền thơm thịt da.

(Fragrant rice from three regions flavoring the flesh and skin.)

In the musical world, the áo dài has been inspiring many musicians to compose songs like Ngàn thu áo tím (Purple dress across a thousand autumns) by Hoàng Trọng, Tà áo cưới (The wedding dress) by Hoàng Thi Thơ, Tà áo tím (The purple dress) by Hoàng Nguyên …

Following are the lyrics of the song “Cô gái Việt Nam” (The Vietnamese girl) by Huỳnh Nhật Tân: Em như đóa hoa xinh trong tà áo dài Việt Nam (Wearing the Vietnamese áo dài, you are like a beautiful flower) // Em yêu quí quê hương, yêu tà áo dài Việt Nam … (You love your country, you love your Vietnamese áo dài …)

Admiring our áo dài, many foreign friends of the writer Bửu Ý have stated: “No where can you find a such discreet robe, but also no where can you find a such exposing dress, especially when it is worn by the gentle girls of Huế.” Because it is long enough to be slender, it can attract people’s attention to the girl’s gracious body flowing, dancing in the streets. At the same time, it is also discreet enough, forcing people to try to disclose the exposure and to remember. It is also light enough so that people can feel the weight of the bright eyes, the shy smile, the gracious gesture, leading people to feel the merciful and gentle heart of the woman of this beautiful region.

Lạp Chúc Nguyễn Huy

Vĩnh Nhơn Lâm Vĩnh Thế

  1. Cadière, L. “Le changement de costume sous Võ Vương ou une crise religieuse à Huế au XVIIIè siècle” (The change of custom under Võ Vương or a religious crisis in Huế in XVIII century), in Bulletin des Amis du Vieux Huế (Bulletin of Friends of Old Huế),

    p. 417-424.

  2. The women of Huế also wear white áo dài even during work as street merchants, or going out of their houses even just for a few steps … in order to show their respect to people around. Emperor Khải Định usually wore áo dai while reading. In the suburbs of Huế, Hương Trà and Phú Vang villages produce special kinds of fabrics such as “sa, lĩnh gấm.” Sơn Điền, Dương Xuân are villages famous for embroidery.