Regular readers will know of my opinion that Vietnamese women are the most beautiful in the world. And that beauty is never more apparent than when they are wearing their traditional dress, the ao dai (pronounced “ow yie” by southern Vietnamese, and “ow zie” by northern Vietnamese*, with a downward inflection). Read on for more about this incomparable outfit – as the sheer beauty and elegance of Vietnamese women in their ao dai is almost indescribable, I’ve included videos and lots of photos!
*The way northern Vietnamese pronounce the letter d is actually softer than a z in English – kind of half way in between a z and a soft g. The English d sound in Vietnamese is represented by a d with a crossbar – I have no idea why the French decided on this convention! (Frenchman Alexander de Rhodes converted the Vietnamese alphabet from Chinese characters to the Roman alphabet in 1651.)
Above are examples of the classic white ao dai, worn by young, unmarried girls in Vietnam to symbolise their “virginal purity” (it is their standard high school uniform, for example). As can be seen, the ao dai is a two piece outfit consisting of a long-sleeved, body length gown of soft, flowing fabric, over light and loose fitting full-length pants. Yet in spite of the fact that it covers the entire body, the ao dai is actually quite sensuous, as the top is both figure hugging and has long slits up the side, which frequently show a seductive flash of bare midriff (as in the photo above).
Once they finish school (but are still unmarried), young Vietnamese women tend to prefer soft pastel shades, such as these ao dai below:
Only once they are married do they normally wear ao dai in stronger, more vivid colours, such as these examples below:
The modern ao dai has actually only been around since 1930, when Vietnamese fashion designer Cat Tuong lengthened the top so that it reached the ground, made the bodice conform to the curves of the body, and moved the buttons from under the neck at the front to an opening along the shoulder and side seam – surely the greatest fashion triumph in history! Early versions of the ao dai date all the way back to 1744 however – here is an example of a more traditional ao dai:
In the austere climate of early communist rule, the ao dai almost disappeared after the Vietnam war, as its extravagance and elegance was considered too excessive for hard work. Mercifully however, it has come back with a vengence in subsequent decades, both amongst expatriate Vietnamese and in Vietnam itself. It has since spawned many modern stylistic variations – here are a couple of examples:
This last one in particular shows just how provocative the ao dai has become, even to the point of being overtly sexual: see through fabric is now quite common, and some (such as the one above) have even removed the sleeves to show more skin!
The resurgance of the ao dai has even inspired a new generation of Vietnamese artists to create works such as this stunning Flash sequence (I very strongly recommend you watch this one – it also features a beautiful soft Vietnamese pop soundtrack). Here is the story behind the creation of this presentation – it was commissioned by aotrang.com, who have some awesome calendars, posters and cards with lovely, arty photos of ao dai.
Here are a couple of video clips featuring the ao dai:
As this last clip is a music video, it is obviously somewhat stylised, but Vietnamese high school girls really do look like this!
Here’s a few good links:
Everything you wanted to know about the AO DAI! (and probably a lot more besides!)
ao dai Vietnam pictures from southeast asia
ao dai vietnam pictures from summer fun
ao hoc tro pictures from school spirit
a search for ao dai on Flickr
And a very big thankyou to Bubalabobo, who not only suggested this great topic, but also helped me to track down a lot of the source material for this very lengthy post!