Friday, November 15, 2013

Vietnamese Culture : Evolution of the ao dai

The styles of Vietnamese long dress, or ao dai, have gone through a number of changes over different periods, and it is still survives today, marking Vietnamese traditions.

Even though the ao dai has not been officially announced as the national costume, it is recognised as a symbol of Vietnam by both local people and foreigners. It is unknown exactly when the ao dai was first designed. Some said the Trung Sisters wore a two-flaps ao dai as far back as AD38-42, while others think it appeared in 17th century, during the Nguyen Dynasty, under the reign of Nguyen Phuc Khoat Lord. However, ao dai styles also changed with each stage of history.

When Vietnam became a French colony and was influenced by western culture, people started to try to modernise the ao dai. The trend began in the early 1930s, with painter Cat Tuong, also known as Le Mur, who redesigned the ao dai to fit more closely to the body, along with larger collars, puffy shoulders and wavy sleeves in a fusion with western dress of the time. Vibrant colours schemes were also introduced along with original dark-coloured ao dais.

The Le Mur Ao Dai fashion lasted for four years until the painter Le Pho attempted to remove all western influence from the Le Mur ao dai in 1934 and used the four-paneled dresses to conform with current standards. His design was popular for nearly 30 years.

When the US replaced France in 1958 as the occupying power, Tran Le Xuan, the wife of President Ngo Dinh Diem's brother and chief adviser, began to wear ao dais that had a V-shaped collars, short sleeves and sometimes gloves, her style was praised as graceful and lady-like. But because Xuan had exerted her influence on many political issues, the trend was not loved by the public at large or the older generation of Vietnamese, who said her ao dai was too sexual and not in line with Vietnam's tradition.

Ao dais had a comeback in the early 1960s. If previous ao dais were worn loosely before, they became more form-fitting than ever after the existence of bras were introduced to the country. A tailor in HCM City named Dung Dakao launched a new “Ao dai Raglan” to be worn with trousers. The way to sew the sleeves and the body at the the armpit and shoulder helped get rid of wrinkles.
By the end of the sixties, a 'hippy' ao dai fashion flooded the streets. These were colourful dresses with flaps to the knees. But then the form-fitting ao dai returned after 1975 with tight sleeves, a high collar and flared trousers.

Over the times, when the fashion world bloomed and women started to show off their curves in Vietnam, the need to renovate ao dai to meet with modern fashion came back to the design world. Instead of fading away like many traditions, the ao dai is still the favoured dress at many formal occasions and remain popular today.
The cuts have become more bold and styles are varied with embroidered and detailed patterns. All kinds of material, from silk, lace to sheer, are used to create ao dais while some people wear jeans or shorts instead of the traditional flared trousers. Even the two flaps are cut real short or widened, though some of the new designs are not welcomed by traditionalists.

Ao dais are considered the symbolic dress of Vietnam, so it is strongly criticised by public when a designer alters it to make it more 'sexy' or be more in tune with current fashion. Many people say that the new form of ao dai is not even an ao dai. 

Designer, Minh Hanh, who is well-known for her brocade ao dai collections, said it takes a strong will in order to modernise the ao dai. "Many designers want to be creative and unique, while retaining tradition. But they most have failed because they wanted a fast victory. They have forgot the difference between the unique and the strange. They need cultural knowledge and also to respect tradition." she said.

Hanh affirmed that it takes passion and knowledge for the ao dai in order to know what to keep and what to discard when a designer renovates this type of dress.

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