Vietnam’s “ao dai” dress still popular, but not among men By Kay Johnson

December 2, 2006

dpa German Press Agency
Published: Wednesday November 15, 2006

Hanoi- When Asia-Pacific leaders gather this weekend for their traditional photo in local costumes, women leaders like Philippines President Gloria Arroyo will find themselves in style in silk “ao dai” dresses still popular among Vietnamese women. A long, fitted silk dress with side slits, worn over loose trousers, the ao dai (pronounced “ow zai”) is renowned for its elegance and flattering silhouette on women – good news for Arroyo as well as New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet

As for male leaders at the summit, including US President George W Bush – they’ll be wearing dresses too. Sort of.

The male version of the ao dai, a similar long silk robe over trousers, hasn’t been worn on Vietnamese’s streets for decades, but the world leaders will don the traditional costume, including a turban-like hat, for a photo opportunity this weekend.

It’s become an annual tradition to don colorful indigenous shirts for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders summit. The tradition started in 1994 in Jakarta when then-President Suharto of Indonesia insisted his guests wear batik shirts.

Since then, the APEC leaders have worn silk shirts threaded with silver in Thailand, ponchos in Chile and kimono-like robes in South Korea.

This year, Vietnamese organizers spent six months designing a special lotus-patterned silk to make the traditional ao dai, which dates back nearly 1,000 years.

“This is exactly the dress that Vietnamese kings wore,” said Bui Xuan Khu, Vietnamese vice minister for industry, who was in charge of selecting the fabric and patterns.

Kings may have once worn ao dai, but the national costume has not had the staying power among Vietnamese men as in women, who commonly wear ao dai at schools and at formal events.

“Ao dai is still very popular among Vietnamese women,” says Nguyen Anh Dung, a tailor who makes the dress for Vietnamese and Western clients. “It can help show off their figure, their beauty and charm.”

As for the male version, “it lost its popularity,” Dung says. “Our men nowadays like to wear suits, which are smart and more comfortable than ao dai.”

Dao Van Gia, 72, who was at Dung’s shop in Hanoi with his wife to have an ao dai made for her, said the male ao dai is reserved only for cultural festivals – even in traditional weddings where the bride wears the red ao dai, men now wear suits and ties.

“I have never worn ao dai,” said Gia, who said there is good reason. “It is very troublesome and tight, uncomfortable for movement. Few men will wear that on the street.”

Vice minister Khu agreed the discomfort of the ao dai made it impractical – though not for women, he said.

“Women are more feminine and move gently, and they also do less hard jobs than men do,” he said.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency


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