History of the Ao Dai by Ann Caddell Crawford

June 27, 2006


The women of Vietnam have, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful national costumes in the world. It is called the “ao-dai.” The over-dress is form-fitting to the waist, with long tight sleeves. At the waist, two panels extend front and back to cover the long satin trousers underneath. Correct fit dictates that the pants reach the sole of the foot, and are always slightly longer than the dress panels. Occasionally lace is sewn around the bottom of each leg. Tradition has kept the color of the pants of the ao- dai to black or white.The traditional ao-dai has a high mandarian collar and is favored by most of the Vietnamese men for their wives and other family members, as well as their girl friends. Young moderns, however, often choose the newer “Madame Nhu” or boat neckline which is far more comfortable in the tropical heat. After the coup d’etat of 1963 when the Diem regime was deposed, it was rumored that this style ao-dai would be banned, but so far nothing has happened.

The dress portion of the ao-dai is often made of nylon and comes in a variety of bright colors and designs. The extremely dressy ao-dai is usually made from brocade or elaborately embroidered material.

When a woman sits down, she takes the back panel, pulls it up and around into her lap. When riding a bicycle, they often tie the back panel down to the back fender to keep it from getting tangled in the wheels. Often, girls can be seen riding along the streets of Saigon on motor bikes with the back of their ao-dai flying loose, causing foreigners to comment that they look like butterflies, and beautiful ones at that.

Many Americans have become so fond of the dress that they have some specially made to send home to their families. They make excellent hostess gowns.

Many of the Vietnamese wear plain black satin trousers with a short shirt for their everyday work.

In addition to these, one sees a variety of Chinese and Western-type dresses worn in Vietnam. The Vietnamese male however, generally objects to women wearing Western clothing.

The men have a costume that has been almost completely replaced by Western dress in Vietnam today. It is similar to the ao-dai, except the outer garment is shorter and not tightly fitted. They are usually worn by older men or in traditional ceremonies.

Children generally wear Western-type dress until they are teenagers. Little girls may occasionally be seen in the ao-dai on special occasions.


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