Story: Trinh Pho
Archives, DzungArt Nguyen

Hang Trong paintings – a traditional style of folk art that originated in central Hanoi – depict four maidens dressed in wooden clogs, quai thao hats, ao yem halter tops and graceful four-paneled tunics in pale pink, green and orange. Elderly Hanoians can still recall women wearing these traditional four-paneled tunics.

In the early 1900s, Hanoian girls wore loose áo dài tunics with one-centimeter-high collars over long, loose trousers. At that time only women wore low sandals. Before 1954, well-bred women always wore áo dài when going out or receiving guests.

As society became more Westernized, women’s fashions in Hanoi began to change. The flaps on the áo dài were cut higher and the waist was emphasized. Figure-hugging áo dàis made of Ha Dong silk accentuated a woman’s femininity. Society ladies went out wearing high heels and carrying clutches or little handbags. Women decorated their tunics with embroidered flowers. These special dresses were ordered from tailor-shops on Hang Trong Street.

When we are nostalgic for Old Hanoi, we think of refined Hanoian women in áo dài. They had good posture and good manners. Their outfits were alluring yet modest, the colors elegant and the fabrics soft. They did not expose a lot of skin or favor lurid colors. Traditional Hanoian women preferred subtle charm.

For a while, the áo dài fell out of favor. In recent years, it has made a comeback at special events, Tet parties and weddings. Today’s áo dài has undergone many changes. It is made from a variety of fabrics but silk remains a favorite. Strolling around Van Phuc Silk Village, we can hardly find silks similar to those chosen by our mothers and grandmothers. Silk is soft, light and flowing and resists wrinkles. It flutters beautifully in the breeze.

In Hanoi, áo dài used to be long, with the bottom of the tunic cut 10cm above the ankles. Thanks to influences from Saigon, the length was then trimmed to reach the calves. Today, longer áo dài are back in fashion.

These tunics are flattering. They make curvaceous women look slimmer and slender ones appear ethereal. When we catch sight of a woman in a fluttering áo dài strolling through the capital’s narrow streets, we feel nostalgic for the Hanoi of years gone by.