A dress for all Vietnamese

No 3, Vol.6, May - June 2015

Women in traditional ao dais at Square 16 /4  in Ninh Thuan Province.Photo: Le Van Hung

I began wearing the ao dai (lit. ‘long gown’) at the age of 10, when my mother had sewed me a new ao dai for the Tet lunar new year as if to mark the figure of my person. Since then, the ao dai has followed me throughout my youth. The year that I matriculated at Dong Khanh Women’s Secondary School, my mother made the uniform out of white silk. Whenever I wore the ao dai, I felt proud because I became more dignified and more of a woman. During the time that I became acquainted with the ao dai, it was for me Vietnamese attire reserved for Vietnamese women. The ao dai had straightened my gait and my manner of living as a Vietnamese woman. Since our generation, the ao dai has been the national women’s attire. The ao dai was closely tied to every families’ traditional lifestyle and was virtually the single manner of dress for every woman. School girls going to school in the ao dai was something natural rather than forced or stipulated like today.
In 1965, when I went to Germany to study, I brought with me six sets of ao dai made from domestic silk. On the day of the start of my first academic year, I along with the other female teachers came in to report to school donning the ao dai. Our foreign colleagues who attended the opening were astounded when they saw our clothing. They lavishly praised our ao dai for their tender, graceful appearance and also as an unusual, beautiful, and proper, manner of dress that is suitable to ‘oriental’ women’s lissom forms. In the unusual setting of foreign lands and amongst unfamiliar faces, wearing ao dai, I felt confident and steady. Compared to dressing in awkward foreign clothing, Vietnamese women, regardless of how fashionable the latter may be, are never more beautiful than when in the ao dai, because the ao dai suits Vietnamese women’s manner, bearing, and physical form. The ao dai brings out their special graceful appearance. I still recall when I saw my female friends in polite and respectful ao dai and how joyous I was when everyone paid attention to them like rare, beautiful flowers amongst hundreds of thousands of unfamiliar people. 
During my time in Germany, when I appeared in ao dai, not a few came to touch the ao dai and expressed compliments. People even knelt down, held the dress, and kissed it to convey their respectfulness and admiration. Winter in Germany is very cold, so it was necessary to change my clothing. The ao dai were tucked away in my luggage. Occasionally, not seeing me bearing ao dai, my colleagues requested that I bring ao dai just for them to behold! In 2000, I went to attend an international conference in South Korea. At that time, I brought along a classical ao dai. Everyone was surprised, not expecting that the Vietnamese ao dai was so elegant and noble, so graceful and appealing in comparison to Korean traditional dresses. That particular ao dai was an embroidered gown. Underneath was crimson silk, while the outer fabric was embroidered in silver and gold threads in the form of male and female phoenixes as well as the sun and moon. The old way of cutting the five laps was so that they were loose rather than tight-fitting. Nowadays, the ao dai has broken away a lot in style. Ao dai fashioned the old way were covered in loose flaps. Although they weren’t tight at the waist, owing to being just close-fitting enough, they continued to emphasize the slender, elegant Vietnamese female form. 

Pupils wearing ao dais in Dong Thap Province. Photo: Nguyen Vinh Hien

Hue girls are very fond of purple ao dai. There was a time when, for female Dong Khanh students, the uniform was purple ao dai, so the Dong Khanh school at that time was also referred to as the ‘purple gown school’.  In my day, the school gave us white ao dai. However, purple ao dai continued to be liked because it conveyed a Hue character that was beautiful and poetic. Hence, the dress was also referred to as ‘tim Hue’ (Hue purple). The beautiful features of Hue favour elegance, reserve, and simplicity rather than flashy coloration. Purple has been deeply engrained in the hearts of Hue girls because they were forged precisely by the sky, rivers, mountains, and space of ancient times. The city of Hue is the reverent land of the capital, but its splendour is not displayed externally but from within. The purple ao dai discreetly conceals its resplendent beauty, diminishing the flashy colour spectrum and directs people to notice its virtuous manner and inner spirit.  That is the distinct beauty of women in general and particularly the beauty of Hue girls. After many years of having had settled in Germany, I still to choose to wear purple; in the colours of the dress, I trained myself to become more adept and modest.n

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