If you’ve spent any time browsing my site you will have noticed Vietnamese ao dai wedding dresses. What are ao dai and why do we make them? Ao dai are the traditional dress from Vietnam. The word has two parts: ao is the word for a piece of clothing worn on the upper body while dài translates to "long". An ao dai consist of two parts, a long tunic with a split on either side and pants.
I born and raised in Vietnam before moving to the United States to study design. As such, I’ve always loved the graceful appearance of the ao dai and wanted to design my own versions alongside my Western-style wedding dresses.
While ao dai are often referred to as a dress, traditionally, men wear a version of the ao dai call an ao gam, especially during wedding ceremonies in Vietnam. Unlike Western wedding dresses, ao dai are also considered a daily garment. Girls wear ao dai every day to school as their uniform. What sets a wedding ao dai apart from the ao dai for daily wear is the level of intricacy in the custom design work.
Men also wear ao dai for special occasions. Below, George Bush and Vladimir Putin can be seen wearing ao gam during an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hanoi in 2006.
The ao dai is now considered the national dress of Vietnam. That wasn’t always the case though as up to the late 18th century a robe resembling the Korean Hanbok or Japanese Kimono was worn by Vietnamese aristocrats. The Vietnamese ao dai history began in 1744, when Lord Nguyễn Phúc Khoát of Hue decreed a front-buttoned gown and trousers were to be worn by both men and women at his court. This was the garment that would transition into the modern ao dai. The term “ao dai” was supposedly coined by the famous Vietnamese writer, philosopher and statesman, Lê Quý Đôn.
One of the most interesting historical facts regarding the ao dai is that artists, not fashion designers played a large role in the transition from the historical ao dai to the ao dai worn today. While design and fit of the modern ao dai can be traced back to artists, tailors added the raglan sleeves seen on ao dai today. This detail reduced the bunching of fabric under the arms, creating a more comfortable dress. The beginning of the modern ao dai can be traced back to 1930 when Hanoi artist Cát Tường, who is also known as Le Mur, designed a dress taking inspiration from ao dai worn at Lord Nguyen’s court and dress styles from Paris.
The new ao dai was floor-length and was more fitted than the historical garment. Le Mur’s ao dai came to the fashion forefront when it was featured in Today newspaper in 1935. In the 1930s, another Vietnamese painter, Lê Phô, designed popular ao dai styles. The ao dai seen in the Cat Tuong (Le Mur) painting above fits more loosely than today’s ao dai. The side slit also starts lower than most modern ao dai designs.
It was during the 1950s that the ao dai transformed from a loose clothing item to the form-fitting ao dai seen today. During the 1960’s and 1970’s the ao dai gained a high level of popularity. This time period is when the dress began to become associated with Vietnam in popular culture. The history of the ao dai continues to evolve to this day. Miss Universe Vietnam 2015, Pham Thi Huong, wore an ao dai with a skirt that looked like a dress without showing the traditional ao dai pants.