Story: Lan Chi, Old Áo dài exhibition
Photos: Linh Chi

After 40 years of meticulous preservation in Munich, Germany, the áo dài of collector and doctor of philosophy Thai Kim Lan are reminders of the glorious past of Hue Former Citadel. From glistening gold threads of superior quality and lining of flawless silk to the “empress gold” that spreads playfully on the moss green brocade or golden buttons running along silver threads, the collection expresses the poetic and extravagant beauty of the Vietnamese áo dài. In this issue, Heritage Fashion introduces three items from collector Thai Kim Lan.  

Special Áo dài Awarded by Empress Dowager Tu Cung

This áo dài, owned by Dr. Thai Kim Lan’s mother was awarded to her by Empress Dowager Tu Cung. It was created in the beginning of the 20th century. 

The outer layer is made from royal brocade, woven with high quality gold threads. The inner layer is made of coral-red high quality silk; the blend of gold and red silk creates a splendid and luxurious dress.

The pattern of the character “longevity” is woven in rows with golden thread. Between these rows is the character “happiness,” woven in blue and red.  These characters” represented symbols of the highest goals in life and were very popular among members of the royal court.


This áo dài is the Nguyen-period type which is called a five-part dress (ao ngu than), differing from the four-part dress (ao tu than) in the north and short dress (ao ngan) in the south.

It fully covers the body and is spacious in the chest area and not tight around the waist. Skilled artisans made this áo dài so that when standing, the only inner part visible is the lower section of the trousers below the dress. The dress has five buttons on the collar and to the side. The collar is round and about 2cm high while the sleeves are long and narrow, hugging the arms. The dress falls below the knees, and consists of five parts, two front and two back. Each main part has two sub parts sewn together in the middle, while the fifth part lies beneath the front, connected by a cushion underneath the collar called bau co. This part is called the “child,” and the other four parts represent the parents and parents-in-law.

Five buttons represent five human qualities: kindness, politeness, loyalty, intelligence, and trustworthiness. According to the ancient belief, wearing the dress means taking on the responsibility of being a good person. The collar, sleeves and hem are all lined with silver thread. Five gold buttons are accessories that complete the dress and emphasize the luxurious and noble status of the wearer. Thsee luxurious buttons are a highlight of the dress, together with the rare and luxurious fabric.

Moss Green Brocade Áo dài

This áo dài from the Nguyen Dynasty was made at the beginning of the 20th century and was worn by the concubine of Emperor Khai Dinh on holidays and special occasions such as the New Year, receptions or visits.

The áo dài consists of two layers, with the outer layer made of high quality moss-green silk satin. The fabric is woven with glittering thread of patterns from eight auspicious symbols of feng shui. The inner layer is made of high-quality pure silk of anamber-orange color. This fabric was paid as tribute to the imperial court; later, Lady Tu Cung, the Emperor’s mother, gave it to the royal family members to make their own dresses.

Design follows the norms of the Nguyen period and consists of five parts: four parts representing the parents, and one part representing the child, which is shorter than the main parts. There is a strap inside to tie with the main part. The dress is also called ao chit (tightly fitted dress); while still modest, it revealed more of the body’s curves. Short collars feature coral red buttons (there are only three buttons left). The patterns depict eight auspicious symbols of feng shui and other traditional patterns drawn from various sources of nature and legends. These were believed to bring good luck, happiness and blessings.

Ocean Blue Áo dài

This Nguyen period áo dài was worn by a concubine of the emperor and was also made at the beginning of the 20th century. The dress consists of five parts and two layers: the outer layer is made of sky-blue pure silk while the inner layer is made of a dusty pink silk. The dress is decorated with flowers woven with shiny silk thread, which was very popular in high society.

The dress features short collars and short sleeves that tightly hug the arms. Its buttons are made of copper plated with gold. The dress is a symbol of taking the responsibility of being a person of great qualities: kindness, politeness, loyalty, intelligence and trustworthiness, represented by the five buttons.