A women’s clothing tiansition ieflected the iapidly changing Vietnam of the 20th centuiy.

“In the eighth lunar month, the Emperor issued an edict

Banning long skirts, which horrified the public

The market will be empty if people can’t go

If they do, they’d need to strip their husbands’ pants!

With pants on, they can sell their wares

Without pants, they must wait for officials to inspect.”

Traditional layered skirts of ancient Northern women.

This folk poem was popular during the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) when the court prohibited vay dup (long layered skirts) because they were considered socially inappropriate. After many historical reforms and shifts, the ao tu than (four-piece tunic) and layered skirt became iconic symbols of women in the North Vietnamese countryside in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Due to historical fractures during the Trinh-Nguyen War, Northern women wore traditional layered skirts while their Central and Southern counterparts wore pants. After reunification, the court decided to enact sumptuary laws. Many decisions to reform dress followed, but the Nguyen Dynasty’s requirement for women to wear pants only affected nobility, the families of mandarins and those emulating this lifestyle. Most women continued to wear skirts and four-piece tunics. Unique ways of dressing were regarded as regional and local specialties, so changes at court had little impact on longstanding norms.

However, modernism and development in the early 20th century quickly began to upend long-held concepts as well as centuries-old traditions. Northern Vietnamese women had long been associated with black skirts, but they underwent daring changes that breathed new life into their apparel – drawing vocal criticism from conservative observers.

A 1933 issue of Ha Thanh ngo bao (Ha Thanh Afternoon News) remarked on the recent phenomenon of Northern women wearing white pants, connecting it in a derogatory way to marriages with foreign, mainly French, men.

Various controversies arose during the early days of the innovative ao dai

“Before, no Northern   woman   would wear white pants,” the article said. “Well- educated, properly raised, and decent people would never marry Westerners, no matter how rich, educated or genteel; thus, wearing white pants means accusing oneself of being a ‘professional wife’ to Westerners.”

During this reformation period, social commentary on layered skirts and white pants was inevitable. These seemingly neutral clothing articles inadvertently represented the clash between the old and the new, with harsh words leveled at contemporary women who dared to wear white pants. Lifestyle innovations, however, continued to make significant inroads, particularly in cities. Silk pants gradually entered Northern lives, as girls from well-to-do families were the first to be influenced by the latest fashion trends. Ideas about appropriate clothing, mindsets, and aesthetics gradually began to shift. The Women’s Wear Competition at the 1935 Ha Dong Silk Expo best demonstrated the influence of white pants. Ha Thanh Afternoon News reported that the “the most beautiful ensemble (judges’ choice) was Miss Ly’s: a black shirt with white pants.”

The movement to “change layered skirts into white pants” lasted from 1935-1946, when artist Cat Tuong’s innovative ao dai was born. The Lemur ao dai influenced countless urban ladies and struck a powerful chord for the clothing modernization   movement,   specifically   the abandonment of the layered skirt.

Modern culture gradually came to accept white silk pants

Despite dissenting views, contemporary experts and progressives saw change as inevitable in favor of recognizing women’s beauty. In the second half of the century, ao dai innovations became bolder, clothing styles gradually changed, the layered skirt faded and white pants gained widespread acceptance.

The path from layered skirts to silk pants represented a period of transition not just in clothing but in worldview as well. Tracing the changes offers a unique perspective on aesthetics, innovation and the evolution of Vietnamese society.