The Vietnamese ao dai dress is one of the country’s national symbols along with the iconic conical hats or non la. Consisting of a long tunic stretching from the neck to the calf, with a pair of trousers underneath, it’s as Vietnamese as conical hats, bowls of pho and a love of rice.
Once a common garment worn by men and women across all strands of society, the ao dai has had a colorful history, going in and out of fashion and enjoying the influence of European designers alongside its traditional form.
These days you’re unlikely to see the ao dai being worn by those employed in physical work, and its wearing is generally limited to ceremonial occasions and specific occupations.
History of the Ao Dai
The ao dai is thought to date back to the mid 18th century, when the Nguyen Dynasty introduced the costume as Vietnam’s national dress. Back then the garment was much looser – resembling a smock over a pair of wide-fitting trousers. The shirt was buttoned from collar to base, and was typically just below knee-length. It was also a unisex item. Today, the garment is usually seen only on women, but the style can still be seen on men for special occasions.
Prior to the Nguyen King’s reign, tunics tended to have scooped collars and were sleeveless. Like many Vietnamese traditions, the ao dai has its origins in the Cham community, who wore longer sleeves. It’s thought that the Nguyen king introduced the style as a concession to the Cham rulers in order to win their favor.
Original ao dai’s were much more practical for daily activities than the styles worn today. Given they were a looser-fitting garment, people of all professions could wear them comfortably and still go about their daily business.
Changes in Design and Cut
Designers from the 1920s worked on making the dress more fitted, bringing in elements of European fashion during the French colonial period.
The ao dai was even seen at a Parisian fashion show in 1921, introducing the costume as a fashion garment, which led to several top designers tweaking the dress for their own designs.
The tight design became popular during the 1950s, when Saigonese designers introduced the hug-fit which remains popular today.
The ao dai’s popularity waned during the American War and the period of independence that followed. As a whole there was less wealth available in the country, and so fashion took a back seat.
Here began the shift to the ao dai’s current status as a dress for special occasions and particular occupations.
Always more popular in the south than the north, their wearing was less popular during the early days of independence, but in modern times the dress has been firmly recognized by all as an important symbol of Vietnam.
Although the ao dai is regarded as a conservative dress – covering the whole body from wrists to ankles – the costume’s close fit nowadays suggests a more complex position.
One saying states that ‘the ao dai covers everything, but hides nothing’, which pretty much sums things up!
The Ao Dai Dress Today
Even though parts of the country may still dress a little more conservatively than people do in the West, it’s common to see Western dress pretty much everywhere you travel in Vietnam, especially amongst the young. Changing times and the practicalities of Vietnam’s climate mean that wearing ao dai on a daily basis is uncomfortable for most.
It’s still possible to see variations on the traditional ao dai costume, including a wider collar, shorter sleeves, higher cuts to the dress or even a long skirt replacing the trousers. But in general the traditional design is adhered to and worn by teachers, older students, receptionists and flight attendants. Many women have one or two ao dai purchased early in adulthood that they’ll wear just a few times a year for special occasions.
Ao dai are also popular with tourists and it’s not uncommon to see visitors from other parts of South-east Asia and beyond walking the streets of Hoi An’s Old Town, dressed in a just-made ao dai. Like the Vietnamese non la (conical hat), ao dai make a popular souvenir for many tourists traveling through Vietnam.
Colors of the Ao Dai
Although color is less important these days, the fabric used for an ao dai is traditionally a sign of the wearer’s age and marital status. White is the color for younger girls, then pastel colors for older but unmarried women. Darker colors were favored for married women.
In modern times, this is less adhered too, and those having to wear an ao dai regularly due to their occupation usually wear the same color as all the rest of the staff. For example, attendants on Vietnam Airlines wear a pastel green tunic and white trousers, regardless of age or marital status.
Why is ao dai important?
Ao dai have become one of the national symbols of Vietnam. These days they are normally worn for festivals, such as weddings or for Tet. They are also worn by female teachers in Vietnamese schools and students at secondary schools or some universities. You can also find some women in certain occupations wearing them – the staff at the nationally-owned Vietnamese Airlines company wear matching ao dai in green and white, for example.
What does ao dai mean?
The words ‘ao dai’ translate literally to ‘long shirt’. Many Vietnamese phrases are naturally descriptive and the ao dai fits into this lexical category. The term describes the dress part of the costume, which naturally goes beyond the knee.
What is ao dai made of?
There are no rules regarding what an ao dai can be made of, but silk and cotton are popular choices. As the costume covers the body completely – the dress goes down to the wrists and the trousers to the ankles – it’s important to choose a lighter, breathable fabric where possible. Go with a manmade fiber and the wearer risks boiling themselves alive during Vietnam’s hotter months.
How much does an ao dai cost?
Ao dai’s can be rented or bought for a range of prices, depending on fabric and workmanship. A basic rental of a plain ao dai can cost anywhere from 100,000 VND (5 USD) to 500,000 VND (21.50 USD). Buying an ao dai can cost from 400,000 VND (17 USD) to over 1 million VND (45 USD), depending if you’re going for ‘off-the-peg’ or bespoke. There’s also materials and tailoring quality to consider. Quality material in an elaborate design, combined with quality tailoring will bump the price up, but you’ll have a garment that lasts.
How long does it take to make an ao dai?
You’ll be able to get an ao dai made in Hoi An within 24 hours if need be, even sooner if you’re in a rush. But it’s worth taking time if you have it. An ao dai is a close-fitting garment and if you’re going for a bespoke dress and trousers then pay for as high-quality a service as you can afford – two or three fittings may add to the cost but will ensure you have a garment that looks truly fabulous.
How many yards of fabric do I need for an ao dai?
This depends on your own size, but generally five yards of fabric will suffice for most shapes and sizes. You’ll need around 2.5 yards for the dress and about 2 yards for the trousers. If you’ve any doubt, speak with your tailor before purchasing. It’s likely your tailor will be able to sell you fabric as well as make your item, but if there’s nothing there that you like, then your tailor can advise how much fabric to buy from a cloth showroom or market.