Story: TU YENG LUONG HOAI TRONG TINH
Photos: NHAN NGUYEN, PHAM DUC ANH
The ao dai, a familiar symbol of Vietnamese culture, is at the heart of a contemporary fashion revival.
The term ao dai is collectively used for a variety of Vietnamese traditional long dresses. In contrast to ao van (short-panel dress), the ao dai was worn as both everyday wear and ceremonial dress. There were two popular variations of the garment: ao dai thung, which had long, loose sleeves and wide panels, was normally reserved for ceremonial or formal occasions; and ao dai chet (also known as ao chen), which had fitted sleeves and knee-length panels, was used only in day-to-day activities.
These two ao dai types were sewn in the five-panel style, known as ao ngu than. More recent ao dai variations that consist of only two panels with the back left unsewn became popular in the mid-20th century thanks to their convenience, ease of sewing and economical use of fabric. These ao dai were widely used in day-to-day activities, wedding ceremonies and funerals, persisting until the 1990s and 2000s in some rural areas before being gradually phased out by modern styles.
Over the past decade, there has been a movement in Vietnam among younger generations to revisit traditional values, which has brought the ao dai back into the spotlight.
Vietnam’s Generation Z is bringing its own interpretation of history and culture to the project. Material beauty, spiritual essences and the values imparted by ancient tales are being retold from a fresh perspective tailored for the contemporary era.
Traditionally, the ao dai is more than merely a dress; it carries with it the foundations of Vietnamese culture. Its five panels were meant to stand for the five ethical values of “nhan, nghia, le, tri, tin” (humanity, gratitude, respect, intelligence, and prestige). Dressing properly also reflected character in daily life through the maxim “y phuc xung ky duc” (clothes make the man ).
At the same time, the ao dai is taking on a dynamic new life of its own. It is appearing in popular media and on university campuses around the country, from the traditional costume day at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City to the Vietnam Summer Fair 2022 at Thua Thien Hue Institute of Development Research.
From new ao dai collections to stories, art and fashion performances, new generations are carrying the torch of Vietnam’s traditional dress and culture into the future. Blending history with forward-thinking fashion and contemporary ideals, the ao dai is finding a new relevance at home and on the global stage.