History of Ao Dai

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Áo Dài (Vietnamese traditional dress) has become a feature of Vietnamese culture with its indispensable role in many important occasions of the nation. Ao Dai upgrades the traditional beauty and charming of Vietnamese women. It characterizes the women who have to go through tough times but still remain optimistic about the future.

The origin

Ao Dai was considered as a part of “Tạp phục”, which is a  type of clothing that has many layers.

Vietnamese people often maintain a discreet distance with strangers. They have a special concern for the way they look. Cristoforo Borri, an Italian cleric who lived in Vietnam from 1618 to 1623, remarked that although Vietnam had a very hot weather, people always wore long thick clothes.

In the past, people took a lot of time to find ways to coordinate the aesthetic principles with the regime of privacy. For example, the necks of Vietnamese people were not long, so ancestors tried to tie down the collar and make it tight to the neck, while putting the hair high up, altogether for making the neck look naturally longer.


Áo Giao Lãnh (17th century)

Ao giao lanh (Photo: elle.vn)

The earliest version of the Ao Dai was a four-piece dress with a short camisole, black skirt and waistband.

Áo Tứ Thân – Four-piece dress (18th century – early 20th century)

To make it more convenient for working, the ancient people made a neat four-piece dress with two front flaps that could be tied together. As a costume of the lower class, the dress was usually sewn from dark fabrics.

On the contrary, urban women were often dressed in five-piece dress to distinguish themselves from the poor. The costume was like a four-piece dress, which was sewn together into two front and back flaps. The fifth flap was sewn under the front as a piece of secret underwear. Generally, it had large size and a wide neck.

Between 1910 and 1920, Northern women preferred to add a small cut to the right of the collar, and set a button there. Such collar would make the dress more charming, and also show off a precious chain of beads around the neck. However, at the temple ceremonies or elders meeting, the middle of the collar would be sealed with a button.

Ao Dai Lemur (1939 – 1943)

The big breakthrough that contributed to the design of today’s Ao Dai was the “Le Mur”, which was created by artist Cat Tuong in 1939. Unlike the traditional loose and baggy dress, Le Mur tightly embraced the body with a lot of Westernized details such as puff sleeves, heart-shaped neck and ribbons. This “hybrid” dress was strongly condemned at the time as indecent and against traditional values, so only some modern artists dared to wear it. By 1943, this type of dress was gradually forgotten.

Ao dai Lemur (Photo: vnsplorer.com)

Mrs.Nhu Ao Dai (early 1960s)

In the early 1960s, Mrs. Tran Le Xuan (Mrs.Nhu), the wife of Mr. Ngo Dinh Nhu, designed an open-necked dress by stripping off the collar. This type of Ao Dai, commonly known as Mrs.Nhu Ao Dai, encountered a strong reaction because it was against the traditions and customs of the contemporary society. Today, Mrs.Nhu Ao Dai is, however, very popular for its comfort and suitability for the tropical climate of Vietnam.

Tight Waisted Ao Dai – Mini Ao Dai (1960 – 1970)

In the 1960s, tight waisted Ao Dai challenged the social traditions to become the most fashionable dress. At the time, modern bras were widely used. Urban women with open minds wanted to tone up their body curves through tight waisted Ao Dai.

Tight waisted Ao Dai (Photo: news.zing.vn)

Near the end of the 1960s, Mini Ao Dai became popular among girls for its comfort and convenience. The flap was shorten to the knees, and the dress was not tight waisted but still followed body curve.

Modern Ao Dai (1970 – present)

From the 1970s to the 1990s, Ao Dai did not change much. There were some new ways of modification, but all of them did not create any state-of-the-art trend. Modern Ao Dai usually appears with many variations of collar like heart-shaped round neck or U neck. It has two flaps and is wore with long and loose pants. The dress varies in colors and patterns, and each style represents different characteristics. For instance, Vietnamese brides and grooms usually wear red Ao Dai because the color represents good luck and happiness. Simple white Ao Dai is commonly spotted at high schools as it is a traditional dress for female students, while female teachers are dressing in different styles of Ao Dai.

Modern Ao Dai (Photo: dantri.com)


From the past till now, Ao Dai has been considered as a noble dress which appears in formal occasions such as national holidays, weddings, or important meetings. At the early stage, there was, in fact, Ao Dai for men, but then, it gained less and less attention, until today, you can only see a man wearing Ao Dai mostly at his wedding.

Vietnamese man in Ao Dai at his wedding (Photo: marry.vn)

In spite of modernization, Ao Dai has still stood firmly in the traditions of Vietnamese. In modern daily life, Vietnamese prefer wearing comfortable western-styled outfits; however, when it comes to their special days, they will not be reluctant to show up in a beautiful Ao Dai. Some people remark that only Ao Dai can showcase the beauty of a Vietnamese girl and the beauty of Ao Dai can only be fully admired when put on a Vietnamese girl.

What do you think?

Son Nguyen

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Author: Son Nguyen

I spent 80% of my time studying.

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