An Ode to the Áo Dài

As household lore goes, my grandparents’ 65-year marriage started with a white áo dài. Image a scorching spring day within the Fifties on the Mekong Delta, only a skip from the border of Cambodia, the place the dust highway winds like a rusty-red serpent up onto a bridge overlooking a river. A bunch of schoolgirls walks residence for lunch, arm-in-arm, all besides one: my grandmother, who dawdles dreamily behind them in her white áo dài—what would later change into the varsity uniform for feminine college students in Việt Nam. My grandfather, a younger touring soldier, stands by the facet of the highway consuming from his canteen. The second he glimpses my grandmother in her áo dài, silken cloth fluttering over the worn outdated planks of the bridge, he’s captivated. To him, she’s the image of the Việt Nam he loves: recent, stunning, and impartial.

My grandparents aren’t the primary, or final, to carry cherished reminiscences of the áo dài. This garment, translated as “lengthy shirt,” has been a fixture within the cultural creativeness of Việt Nam since 1744, when the southern lords decreed that males put on trousers with a front-buttoned tunic, to separate them sartorially (and politically) from the northern a part of the nation. Since then, this precursor to the áo dài has advanced into the garment we all know at present: an ankle-length break up tunic, worn over a pair of white, loose-fitting trousers. Although women and men each put on áo dài, most individuals affiliate áo dài with conventional representations of femininity. The longer sleeves, stiff collar, and torso-skimming match are all logos of áo dài, although these traits have advanced in recent times to incorporate stylish reimaginings.

women wearing ao dai, shopping in saigon circa 1970

Girls sporting ao dai, procuring in Saigon circa 1970.

Keystone-France//Getty Pictures

Whereas many really feel that the áo dài is a logo of a nostalgic previous, the costume is fraught with pressure, standing on the precipice of custom and progressive beliefs. The fashionable áo dài actually got here of age within the Nineteen Thirties, with Hanoian designer Nguyễn Cát Tường, often known as LeMur. LeMur designed a fitted garment that amplified the silhouette of a girl’s physique. Many criticized this garment as overly influenced by French model, however the reigning Empress Nam Phương wore LeMur’s design and shortly made it a staple of the Vietnamese wardrobe. Whilst late because the Nineteen Sixties and Nineteen Seventies, the shorter and extra patterned variations of the áo dài—known as Áo Dài Hippy—had been considered as subversive for his or her Western affect. Now, áo dài are seen because the nationwide garment of Việt Nam, although they’re usually both reserved for extra formal events, or used amongst these working in schooling, banking, or civic- and hospitality-related positions.

Danny Nguyen of Danny Nguyen Couture provides a have a look at how the numerous ethnic variations inside Vietnamese tradition come collectively within the design of áo dài. “We symbolize lots of of various languages, and all have influenced the model of áo dài, from the Chinese language, Individuals, and French, to the colours of Thai designs and the patterns in Buddhist religions. The idea of [of the áo dài] was by no means misplaced. It was nonetheless there, simply in numerous translations.”

ao dai

Empress Nam Phương.

Albin Guillot//Getty Pictures

Whereas some designers stay dedicated to the lengthy, raglan-sleeved tunic, others are exploring sweetheart necklines, puffed sleeves, and an outsized, drapey match. Some áo dài are actually knee-length, a nod to the practicality of navigating metropolises on bikes and bikes. With globalization and a diasporic inhabitants that’s more and more interested in its roots, the áo dài has change into consultant of a lot extra than simply formalwear. It’s a strategy to have a good time—and perhaps even interrogate—identification.

When Kelly Marie Tran wore an áo dài designed by Thái Nguyễn to the Oscars in 2022, this second created an impressive stir, each amongst Individuals and Vietnamese individuals of the diaspora who’d by no means seen our nationwide garment represented on a pink carpet. It was, in so some ways, a sort of permission to exist outdoors of the margins, to have our tradition spotlit with out rationalization or apology.

kelly marie tran at the 2022 oscars

Kelly Marie Tran on the 2022 Academy Awards.

ANGELA WEISS//Getty Pictures

Nguyễn remembers receiving a cellphone name from Tran, who requested if it was doable to create an áo dài in three days. He stated, “[That call] woke me up.” After 16 hours of labor, the crew at Thái Nguyễn Atelier completed the áo dài hours earlier than the award present. Nguyễn describes the best way that American PR firms and patrons as soon as informed him that his identify and identification had been too ethnic; they didn’t suppose an áo dài would ever be a mainstream garment. “I’ve been craving for that second,” Nguyễn says, recalling the primary time he noticed Tran on the Oscars. “Afterward, a Vietnamese follower despatched me a photograph of her five-year-old daughter in an áo dài and stated, ‘She will be able to put on this now to a party, as an alternative of a Cinderella or Snow White robe.’” The truth is, Nguyễn is co-writing Mai’s Ao Dai, a kids’s ebook a few lady who discovers the fantastic thing about áo dài, with Vietnamese American author Monique Truong. Such illustration is already altering the best way youthful generations are embracing the áo dài.

Nonetheless, due to the intently fitted silhouette of the áo dài and the normal, restricted sizing of Vietnamese clothes, some Vietnamese girls of the diaspora (like myself) have struggled to seek out áo dài made for them. Diana Le, a TikTokker who posted about her journey discovering a size-inclusive áo dài relates, “I ended sporting them, as a result of … it felt like they emphasised my insecurities. [Relatives] stated they don’t make áo dài for physique varieties like mine, except it was {custom} made. So my cousins … took me to a plus-size retailer in Đà Lạt, the place I used to be capable of finding many conventional and trendy [áo dài].”

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Customized áo dài designers Mark & Vy concentrate on size-inclusivity of their designs, saying, “We need to dispel the parable that you must be a sure physique form to put on an áo dài. To us, áo dài represents magnificence, class, confidence, and pleasure in Vietnamese tradition and artisanal craftsmanship. We like to see [women of all sizes] trying radiant.”

I realized that my mom gave me my first áo dài once I was 5 years outdated, on the exact same day that we bought on a aircraft to immigrate to America. The symbolism isn’t misplaced on me—my mom, sending me to a brand new nation with a garment that represents my homeland. Through the years, I wore that first áo dài and others throughout Tết, or Vietnamese Lunar New Yr, weddings, and different formal occasions. At my very own engagement ceremony, I proudly wore the pink áo dài my aunt had custom-made for me in Ho Chi Minh Metropolis. I’ve rigorously preserved every áo dài in tissue paper, however I admit I not often consider them in each day life. They appear too particular—too faraway from my common routine as a novelist who spends most of my time hunched over a laptop computer.

ao dai

Michael Ochs Archives//Getty Pictures

ao dai

Footage from Historical past//Getty Pictures

However I’ve been avidly following award-winning novelist Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s tour as she promotes her newest ebook, Mud Youngster, and I discover the best way she wears her assortment of áo dài with pleasure and ease. “I take into consideration the individuals who make them,” she tells me. “One tailor store I’m going to is only a nook of a girl’s front room, and she or he has her stitching machine alongside a row of áo dài. She doesn’t promote, however individuals know her by phrase of mouth. And she or he’s actually busy!” A few of Nguyễn’s áo dài had been gifted to her, whereas others had been custom-made from cloth she hand-selected. “Every tells a narrative. I take them on tour with me, as a result of [wearing them] makes me really feel I’ve my homeland with me.”

Banyan Moon

Banyan Moon

My 6-year-old daughter lately did a presentation on Việt Nam for a college undertaking. As we appeared by way of pictures, I talked about how most Vietnamese girls have at the least one áo dài they put aside to put on. It’s the one commonality in closets throughout the nation. I confirmed her my pink engagement áo dài, embellished with intricate golden flowers on the entrance panel. I might see her marvel in the best way she traced every flower, her small finger urgent on the silk, as if she had been making an attempt to memorize one thing essential.

Later that day, I went on-line to buy a tiny, peach organza áo dài for her, full with satin trousers. When it arrived a couple of weeks later, she wore it immediately, pirouetting to the standing mirror to admire herself. Watching her apparent glee, I spotted that whereas I can’t give her the whole lot from my previous, I may give her this one factor, an area for her to exist between worlds, a proud citizen of each. Someday, I’ll take her again to Việt Nam with me—perhaps to the very bridge the place my grandparents first met—however for now, we’ll discover different methods to reconnect with a homeland that’s by no means misplaced, solely translated.


Thao is the writer of Banyan Moon, a Learn with Jenna decide. Her work is printed within the Los Angeles Overview of Books, WIRED, Elle, Lit Hub, Electrical Lit, Catapult, The Sunday Lengthy Learn, and different publications. She lives in Ohio together with her husband and daughter.