Lesson 5A

The Áo dài

Có phải em mang trên áo bay,

(Is it because you wear the flying robe)

Hai phần gió thổi một phần mây

(Two parts flown by the wind, one part by the cloud)

Hay là em gói mây trong áo,

(Or because you pakckage the cloud in your robe)

Rồi thở cho làn áo trắng bay.

(Then you breathe into your robe and make it fly.)

(Nguyên Sa)

“Culture emanates from the way the Vietnamese people eat, clothe, act, think and live.” (Trần Ngọc Ninh). Áo dài is the traditional robe for both men and women, having been officially shaped from the four-flap robe by the decree (1739-1765) of Lord Nguyễn Phúc Khoát. From this original four-flap robe the áo dài of Huế was born, and the colourful four-flap robe of the North and the modern áo dài are considered as the national dress of the Vietnamese people.

Origin of the áo dài of today

In the middle of the XVIII century, the decree by Lord Nguyễn Phúc Khoát (1739-1765) regulated the áo dài as follows: “For regular clothing, men and women wear the robe with an upstanding collar; the openings of the sleeves are customizable. Both sides of the robe, 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 worn the trousers instead, the robe 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 robe 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 flap, representing the person wearing the robe (causing the wrong name of the five-flap robe). 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 (Ren = Benevolence, Charity, Humanity), Nghĩa (Yi = Honesty, Uprightness), Lễ (Li = Correct behaviour, Politeness, Propriety), Trí (Zhi = Knowledge), and Tín (Xin = Faithfulness, Integrity)[1]. The two terms “áo dài” and “áo tứ thân” have started to be 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

(The black robe with five buttons and with a rimmed collar)

Bạn về xứ bạn biết đâu mà tìm.

(You go back to your country; I don’t know where to find you.)

Under his reign, Emperor Minh Mạng has issued a decree to unify clothing in the whole country. His concubines and their servants must wear áo dài every time they went out of the palaces. Ordinary people must wear trousers, skirts being forbidden. For adults, áo dài must 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 = rice thick noodle soup) on the steeets. The Northerners have composed folk poems against this decree:

Chiếu vua mùng tám tháng ba,

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

Cấm quần không đáy người ta hãi hùng.

(Forbidding trousers without bottom and people were terrified.)

During the reign of Minh Mạng Emperor, from the áo dài regulated by Lord Nguyễn Phúc Khoát two new kinds of áo dài appeared: the “áo tứ thân = four-flap robe” 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 robe of women in the North, was the variant form of the robe shaped and regulated by the Nguyễn Lords. Because it was still under the influence of the clothing under the Lê Dynasty, “áo tứ thân” still kept some traces of “áo giao lãnh” with the two flaps narrowing down; to wear it, people put their two arms into the sleeves, the robe 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 two front and back flaps. The front flap was cut into two parts along its length; the part of the robe around the waist was made of two pieces attached together. There were no buttons. To wear the robe 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 two 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 robe 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 red or plumflower-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 robe more beautiful and classy, it would be called “áo ngũ thân = five-flap robe.” If the women wanted to show off their wealth they could add more flaps with different colours and on top of one another; in this case the robe would be called “áo mớ ba mớ bảy = robe with three or seven additional flaps,” which was the origin of the following saying: “Nhiều tiền mua áo năm tà, ít tiền may viền hố bâu = Having much money you can buy five-flap robes, having less money you can only improve the rim of your robe.” “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 hold 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 robe?)

Cái khăn mỏ quạ, cái quần nái đen?

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

When doing labour work, women wore short sleeveless blouse, or brown short-sleeve blouse, with a round collar, small rims and open edge, and with a brassiere inside. The women in the South usually wear a short robe called “áo bà ba.” When they go out then they wear 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 XVIII 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 robe had two flaps each, sewn together along the “sống áo = the line in the middle of the back of the robe, just like to backbone of the human body,” the fifth flap was in inside the front of the robe and on the right side. The sleeves were attached just below the elbow (because during that time the width of the fabric was only about 40 cm); the collar was about 2 or 3 cm high; the sleeves and the body of the robe were pretty tight. The flaps were widened from the waist down, without dart at the waist, 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 but at the same time 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 manner … It has been spread widely all over the country and even overseas by modern designers at well-liked 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 and white robe flying in the air.)

Poetess Bích Lan


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 with many different colours 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” (the “áo tứ thân” with “khăn đóng Hoàng Hậu = Empress turban”), which became the traditional clothes reserved for the 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 robe at the embossed shoulders, and the buttons are placed along the right shoulder and side looking very sexy. This new áo dài was worn with white trousers (before that, only men wore white trousers). For the first time the woman’s body was exposed. This innovation was supported by the two journals Phong Hóa and Ngày Nay. In 1934, the painter Lê Phổ improved the Lemur, 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 flying. 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, mai flowers …), and from that time on all kinds of decoration (landscpes, flowers in all colours) have been added on the traditional áo dài.

During the time of the First Republic, the brides always wore the national clothes of “the ladies”: coloured áo dài outside the traditional large robe of the Nguyễn Dynasty’s empresses or ladies. At the end of the 1960’s, the tailor shop Thanh Khánh in Dakao invented the embroidery samples of decorative branches, leaves and flowers for áo dài, and the Saigon Souvenirs store introduced the classy painting and embroidery samples on silk.

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 robe, helped Miss Thùy Lâm selected to the goup of ten most beautiful candidates with traditional clothes.

For men, up to today, the áo dài still follows the style of the Nguyễn Emperors. The men’s áo dài is not popular, only worn in traditional festivals, ceremonies, weddings.



Vietnamese national costume at APEC 2006

National costume of President Ngô Đình Diệm’s era reviving with APEC 2006

Today, with the development of the urban culture based on incessant technology and creation, the beauty of the Vietnamese clothes, especially women’s clothes, depends pretty much on the designing technology, colours, and fabrics …On September 10, 1995, at the Tokyo international beauty pageant, Miss Vietnam Trương Quỳnh Mai obtained the prize for the Best National Costume. She was wearing a blue brocade áo dài decorated with silver flowers, white trousers, and a turban …

At the occasion of the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Coopertion (APEC), Vietnam used the traditional clothes like brassieres, skirts for the waitresses at the banquet. They also invited Jennifer Phạm, a former refugee, wearing the áo dài decorated with lotus flowers, to serve as MC for the banquet and entertainment in Đà Nẵng. In 2018, Miss Ngọc Trân, wearing Mrs. Ngô Đình Nhu-style áo dài at the Seoul Fashion Week for traditional costumes in Korea.



Mrs. Ngô Đình Nhu-style áo dài in Seoul 2018 Jennifer Phạm at 2017 APEC

Today, the áo dài from the time of the Republic of Vietnam, originated from the Huế royal court culture and having spread to overseas, has become the symbol of the Vietnamese common cultural identity and marked 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, folk poetry, proverb, painting, 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 praise for the áo dài in the poem “Chiếc áo dài Việt Nam = The Vietnamese áo dài” by Đinh Vũ Ngọc:

Chiếc áo quê hương dáng thướt tha,

(How slender and graciousl is the robe 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 sparkling waves,)

Tà phía Trường Sơn rực sỡ 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 nice back.)

Nhịp tim Hà Nội nhô lồng ngực,

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

Hương lúa ba miền thơm thịt da.

(Fragrance of rice from thrre parts of Vietnam pervading the fresh and the skin.)

Mềm mại, dịu dàng vương cánh áo,

(The robe flaps are so soft, so tender,)

Mảnh mai, duyên dáng đậu bờ vai.

(The robe shoulders are so delicate, so gracious.)

Chợt nghĩ áo dài nên thơ ấy,

(I suddenly think of that so poetic robe,)

Có còn ôm ấp những thơ ngây?

(Is still embracing the girl’s innocence?)

Poem by Hoàng Sa

Em xinh xinh quá dáng mảnh mai,

(You are so cute, so delicate,)

Áo dài tha thướt quá tuyệt vời.

(Your robe is so wonderfully slender.)

Nhìn em nhớ một thời áo trắng,

(Watching you reminds me of these white robes,)

Nón lá nghiêng che tóc dài bay.

(And these inclined conic palm-leafed hats hiding long flying hairs.)

Poem by Nguyễn Thị Quí

Áo trắng đơn sơ mộng trắng trong,

(White robe and innocent dreams at night,)

Hôm xưa em đến mắt như lòng.

(You came with all your heart the other day.)

Poem by Huy Cận

Em như tiên nữ khối mười hai,

(You are like the fairy of the twelfth block,)

Dấu cả trời thơ trong áo dài.

(Hiding the whole poetic sky in your áo dài.)

Nắng thơ dệt sáng trên tà áo,

(The poetic sunshine brightening the flaps of your robe,)

Lá nhỏ mừng vui phất cửa ngoài.

(Being so happy the small leaves lightly blow outside the door.)

In the musical world, the áo dài has been inspiring many musicians to compose songs like Ngàn thu áo tím (Purple robe through thousand autumns) by Hoàng Trọng, Tà áo cưới (The wedding robe) by Hoàng Thi Thơ, Tà áo tím (The purple robe) by Hoàng Nguyên, Tà áo em bay (Your flying robe) by Nguyễn Dũng …

Following are the lyrics of the song “Một thoáng quê hương” (A glance of homeland) by Từ Huy:

Tà áo em bay… bay, bay, bay, bay … (Your robe is flying … flying, flying, flying, flying …)

Trong gió nhẹ nhàng dù ở đâu, Paris, Luân Đôn … (Wherever in the gentle breeze, Paris, London …)

Thoáng thấy áo dài bay trên đường phố, (A glance of áo dài flying in the streets,)

Sẽ thấy tâm hồn quê hương ở đó … em ơi…. (We’ll find the soul of our country there … oh you … )

Following are the lyrics of the song “Áo dài ơi” (Oh! Áo dài) by Sĩ Luân:

Áo dài vui, áo dài hát bao nắng xuân đang về khắp nơi (Áo dài in joy, áo dài sings, announcing the coming back of spring sunshine everywhere)

Áo dài nói, áo dài cười mang hạnh phúc đến cho mọi ngưới (Áo tài talks, áo dài laughs, bringing happiness to everyone).

Following are the lyrics of the song “Ngàn thu áo tím” by Hoàng Trọng:

Ngàn thu mưa rơi trên áo em màu tím, (Thousand autumns, the rain falls on your purple robe,)

Ngàn thu đau thương vương áo em màu tím. (Thousand autumns, pains and sufferings all over your purple robe.)

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 robe, 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 flying, 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.

“Áo dài tứ thân” in the North and “nón ba tầm” Áo dài of Central Vietnam

Áo dài of royal court maids Áo dài of Emperor Bảo Đại and his Empress

Different styles of the collar of áo dài

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  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, Phú Vang produce special kinds of fabrics such as “sa, lĩnh gấm.” Sơn Điền, Dương Xuân are villages famous for embroidery.