Vietnamese fashion: traditional charm on the catwalk

June 27, 2006

09:53′ 29/06/2005 (GMT+7)

VietNamNet – Vietnamese fashion’s recent success on international catwalks shows the growth of the nation’s modelling industry. Most of the successful collections are connected to tradition. VietNamNet finds the key.


Last August during ASEAN Culture Week, the ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information teamed with the Ministry of Culture and Information (MCI) to offer a first-time programme, “ASEAN Arts – Tradition and Modernity”.


Participants from ASEAN were offered a number of activities on Vietnamese culture. The exhibition made history with its fashion. Vietnamese designer Lan Huong charmed viewers with her collection, ‘Legend of Dong Ho’, showcasing the traditional beauty of folk paintings from Dong Ho, a village in the North famous for printing folk paintings with wooden engravings.


By using such popular images as ‘The Wedding of the Mice’, ‘Jealousy’, ‘Collecting Coconuts’ and ‘Skipping’ Ms Huong brought out the deep cultural character of rare art, giving audiences a privileged glimpse of Vietnam.


‘Legend of Dong Ho’ is one of many programmes adapted from the nation’s traditional styles. Fashion design has provided a fitting venue and many designers have found success with the form. Vietnamese fashion has recently been highlighted as a movement on international catwalks as part of a trend in infusing designs with national identities.


The growing industry – traditional art


At about 10 years’ and running, Vietnamese fashion is still new on the scene. The nation’s fledgling fashion industry is still experimenting and discovering itself. New fashion does, and sometimes doesn’t, help Vietnamese designers, who may follow the latest trends online to keep pace with their counterparts elsewhere in the world. They inevitably chose to highlight the nation’s pronounced generation gap.


There are many choices for creators: silk, the multi-coloured weavings and embroidery of the ethnic minorities, denim, elastic and leather, subtly enhanced with embroidery, beads, or stones. But the most favourite for designers is to place their ideas on traditional dresses.


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A creation based on traditional costume by fahion designer Vo Viet Chung.

In 2002, fashion designer Vo Viet Chung took his fans on a journey to Dong Thap Province, where he created a  “vision of discovery” of the natural beauty of this region and the local culture with his fashion show ‘Hoai Niem Tan Chau’ (Always Missing Tan Chau), an ao dai (Vietnamese traditional dress) collection in silk.


This collection was made in the classical style, infused with the colours of nature. The show was honoured by local audiences and press as his “turning-point” on business and a mark of the national modelling industry.


Ao dai, a Vietnamese treasure, is the favourite choice of Vietnamese fashion designers for improving their creations. It introduces the wearer and brings out beauty. The dress appears to flatter every figure. Its body-hugging top flows over wide trousers that brush the floor. Splits in the gown extend well above waist height and make it comfortable, easy to move in, and show clearly beauty of a woman’s figure. It is a symbol of Vietnamese beauty.


“That is why most of Vietnamese fashion designers chose it, to identify themselves as Vietnamese”, said young designer Quoc Binh.


Although virtually the whole body is swathed in soft flowing fabric, these splits give the odd glimpse of a bare midriff, making the outfit very sensual. Ladies eventually adopt Ao dai as the preferred national dress.  The dress is also surviving as a key item in the nation’s modelling industry.


On the other side, well-known Vietnamese designer Minh Hanh, head of Ho Chi Minh City’s Fashion Design Institute, or FADIN, has found herself working with costumes based on minority dress.


She has had a number of the nation’s largest fashion shows based on traditional minority wear. “All countries have their own strengths in culture. Vietnam is rich too, as it has a long cultural background. Why don’t we use it?” The designer said.


As Ms Hanh explained, it is the right way for young designers to draw on their cultural background. “It is the source of culture. If designers are not able to show their own background, they would never get success.” 


In 2003, Ms Hanh’s ao dai were worn by ten top Vietnamese models at Japan’s famous Kiyomizu Temple. The selection was called “Return to Heaven” and ran as part of the ASEAN-Japan Exchange Year Fashion Exhibition, a prestigious event that acts as a nod of recognition.


Her last collection, “Cultural Heritage” took place in the holy land of My Son, in Quang Nam Province and was based on Cham dress as part of national festival, Quang Nam – Heritage Itinerary 2005.


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Ao Dai collection by fashion designer Minh Hanh.


Drawing on tradition


There are 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam, all with their own dress, many of which have appeared on the catwalk. Fifty-four ethnic groups and 54 different costumes introduce an image of the rich variety of traditional costumes that give creative ideas for fashion designers.


The most primitive yet modern costumes could be from the GiaRai people. Women of this group wear nothing but a small skirt. Men would take just a loincloth to go on any occasion. Then there are H’Mong girls, who wear a shirt, undergarments, leggings and a coiled scarf on their heads. Their skirts are usually in a cone shape with folds that enhance their gentleness.


The traditional Tay costume for a girl is a kerchief tied in a triangle on the forehead, simple indigo dress, belt and silver bracelets and chains while a Muong girl usually wears a medium length skirt, a short white shirt and a pair of silver earrings.


Thai girls wear a colourful scarf, short jacket with silver buttons in two lines and a tight black skirt. People of the Dzao minority share many similarities while at the same time are a little bit distinct.


Girls in the Dzao Do (Red Dzao) keep their hair long and fold it around their heads covered with the red cloth.


Designers love to look back to the past as well, trading the contemporary for old styles.


Clogs, the footwear that both male and female wore in the past, appear on the catwalk in many forms including bamboo and wood depending on the purpose.


Wooden clogs were used at home and they were made with a rattan strap and curved toe-cap for protection. The most popular clogs were self-pared with a slightly curved toe-cap and soft cloth-made strap which is cross-pierced. In Hue City, there was also a kind of clog that was painted with two colours and only rich people wore them.


As a traditional-style fashion, Vietnamese people sometime wear the clogs in summer, showing a new trend of fashion that is both traditional and modern. 

But ao dai is the favourite and can be seen all over the country, as girls in white pick their way through muddy streets going home from school or sailing by in a graceful chatter on their bikes.


A cousin of ao dai, the peasant ao ba ba (pants outfit) is a simple ao dai and has been transformed for the catwalk into elegant haute couture adaptations. This, in turn, spawned myriad knockoffs among mass-market manufacturers.


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Collection of royal Ao Dai by fahion designer Minh Hanh.

In the past, Vietnamese women also wore ao tu than with skirts to differentiate themselves from men, who wore a similar costume with pants. Women were to wear a dress with a high collar that had the front and back of the dress sewn together with seams running down from under the arms.


Aside from the ao tu than and ao ngu than, the traditional look of Northern girls included a khan dong and a khan mo qua. The khan dong is a black piece of fabric wrapped around a girl’s long hair so that it forms a tube around the hair.

The fabric-entubed hair is then wrapped around the crown of the head. Usually, the girl’s hair is a little bit longer than the khan dong, forming a skinny, wispy ponytail sticking out of the end. This ponytail is left dangling down from the khan dong on one side of the head.


The Vietnamese call this hairstyle toc duoi ga because the ponytail resembles a rooster’s tail (toc duoi ga means chicken- or rooster-tailed hair). For formal occasions, Vietnamese girls often used khan dong made of black velvet. Instead of the rooster-tailed hair, they would pin the extra hair down and cover their heads with a khan mo qua, meaning crow’s beak kerchief.


Non La, another Vietnamese symbol is a conical hat made of woven, dried leaves. It is used to shade the head and face from the sun when going outside. The typical image of rural Vietnam is a handful of farmers wearing non la planting rice in the fields.


Hoang Huong


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