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Ao Dai - Traditional Dress of Vietnam - Wear for Special Occasions

By Ruby ZhaoUpdated Apr. 25, 2021
Ao Dai

When traveling through Vietnam, you will see women wearing ao dai everywhere. In Vietnamese, 'áo dài' means 'long shirt'. It is the national costume of Vietnam, symbolizing beauty and elegance.

Though the modern ao dai has many versions, such as those with shorter panels and different collar shapes (round, V or open), the typical female ao dai is a tight-fitting long silk dress with long sleeves that is worn over long pants. It gives the wearer a simple yet flattering profile while still showing the curves of the body.

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Ao Dai Dress Innovation: 4 Differences Between Modern Ao Dai and Ancient Ones

The modern version of ao dai has changed a lot since its creation. Want to know the main differences between the ancient ao dai and the ao dai worn in modern times? Check out the four main differences below.

1. The ancient ao dai is loose and boxy in shape. It's good for work and is comfortable to wear. On the other hand, the modern ao dai expresses beauty with tight-fitting fabric that is still comfortable because of the two slits on the side that span the bottom portion of the dress.

If you would like to take beautiful photos in an ao dai, it's a good idea to have the dress tailor-made based on your size. This will fit you well and look much better than the rented or store-bought ones.

2. The ancient ao dai is simple in color because of societal restrictions during feudalism. The modern ao dai has different colors representing age and status.

Young girls often wear plain white, symbolizing purity. In Vietnam, high school girls' uniform is commonly a white ao dai. Older but unmarried girls wear soft pastel colors, while older married women usually wear ao dai in richer and darker colors.

3. The modern ao dai is cooler and more breathable than the ancient ao dai. Modern versions usually use silk, lace or other arable fabrics for comfort in the hot weather of Southeast Asia. The ancient ao dai was made with multiple layers of cloth.

4. The ancient ao dai was mainly for members of the royal family or government officials. Nowadays, ao dai is worn daily by Vietnamese people of all economic backgrounds. It is also the uniform of many businesses.

Ao Dai for Men: Worn for Vietnamese Weddings and National Festivals

Though ao dai was popular with both men and women in ancient times, you will see few men wearing ao dai nowadays. Ao dai is usually worn only by women. Here's why:

1. It is considered to be old fashioned if men wear ao dai. The various modern versions of ao dai seek to show the femininity of women and are therefore more popular in women's fashion.

2. Men think ao dai are not comfortable for work because of the modern tight styles, although the men's version is much looser than the women's.

ao dai for men

During some important occasions such as weddings, funerals, and Tet, many men will wear ao dai to show respect to tradition. In order to expand this exotic clothing culture, some groups and organizations have started to hold activities showing men dressed in ao dai. Some Vietnamese government officials also wear ao dai when attending international gatherings.

The History of Ao Dai Dress

Even though the ao dai is perceived as the symbol for traditional Vietnamese identity and femininity, its current form has only emerged after substantial foreign influence, making it the ao dai we know today.

The word 'ao dai' was originally used in the 18th century, during the Nguyen dynasty when Chinese-style clothing was mandated.

Ao dai was the name for a specific outfit that was used at the court of the Nguyen Lords in Hue, to distinguish them from other courtiers.

The outfit evolved into the áongũthân, a five-paneled aristocratic gown worn in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Throughout the 20th century, ao dai underwent a lot of changes.

In the 1920s and 1930s during French colonialism, the outfit was redesigned as a modern dress by a French-trained Vietnamese artist named Cat Tuong, or Le Mur. He combined the western dress style with the traditional ao dai. During this time, ao dai began to be promoted as the national costume for the modern era.

In the 1950s, Saigon designers tightened the fit to make it more appealing. Madame Nhu, sister-in-law of President Ngo Dinh Diem, popularized the new tight-fitting version of the ao dai with the boat-neck, considered controversial at the time due to its sensuality.

Ao Dai Dress in Modern Time

Ao dai comes in many variations of color, pattern, length, and collar in modern times.

Besides being the daily clothes for women, it is worn for special occasions such as weddings, Tết celebrations, and other formal occasions. Specific colors of ao dai are worn for worship and ritual ceremonies. Blue, purple, and brown are the main choices.

Ao Dai for Wedding Ao Dai for Wedding

Ao dai is also commonly worn as uniforms for women whether for civil servants, tour guides, hotel staff, or high school girls.

Ao Dai's Social Influence

1. Inspiring architectural design: The exterior of the 65-floor Lotte Centre in Hanoi is inspired by ao dai.

2. A symbol of home: The Vietnamese in California will hold the Ao Dai Festival every year. It is a symbol of national pride. During the festival, many will dress in ao dai to show their respect and longing for Vietnam.

The Difference Between Vietnamese Ao Dai and Chinese Cheongsam

Modern ao dai looks similar to Chinese Cheongsam or Qipao in shape. Both are the national costume and mainly popular with women. Want to know how to distinguish the two?

Vietnamese Ao DaiVietnamese Ao Dai
Chinese QipaoChinese Qipao

1. An ao dai is split from the waist into two flowing pieces split and needs to be worn with pants underneath. A qipao also has a split in the skirt but normally located in a lower position. Pants are not worn underneath a qipao.

2. An ao dai is tight on the upper part of the body but loose from the waist. A qipao is tight all over to show the curve of the hips and legs.

3. An ao dai is more suitable for walking because of the inclusion of pants underneath the dress and is commonly worn as daily clothes. Qipaos are mainly worn for parties or other formal occasions because they are not practical for daily work.

4. Ao dai are usually made with long sleeves and fall down to the ankles. Most qipao are made with short sleeves and have varying lengths.

5. No buttons are included in the design of an ao dai. On a qipao, you will always see a knot button near the neck.

QipaoButtons in Chinese Qipao
QipaoButtons in Chinese Qipao

Getting One

The tight-fitting feature of ao dai means that you need to get one tailor-made for you. The good news is there are many tailors who can do this whether in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, or Hoi An City.

The creation of an ao dai usually takes 1-2 days. The cost differs according to the quality of the fabric and is around USD40 or more for a comfortable outfit.

As part of our tour in Vietnam, we will visit Hoi An, where you can put on a traditional ao dai and be taken around this historic charming town with a professional photographer. Your personal guide will be happy to recommend the reputable shops and tailors where you can have your ao dai made.

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