Áo Dài: History and Significance in Vietnamese Culture

There are many things that deeply impress people about Vietnam, among them is the Áo Dài. Those who know about Vietnamese culture or have visited Vietnam are often fond of the Áo Dài. Áo Dài is Vietnam's national outfit; it is usually worn during special occasions such as Tet, holidays, or weddings. Beside special occasions, Vietnamese high school girls also wear Áo Dài to class everyday.


This article was jointly written by Neil Nguyen and Isabella Nga Lai.

Looking at my mom’s old school pictures, (I) Isabella was inspired to write this article about one of the key essence of Vietnamese culture: the Ao Dai.  Coincidentally, Neil also did a write-up about the ao dai so we decided to combine our two pieces into this story today. The beauty and gracefulness of this dress leave a deep impression in foreigners  who visit Vietnam, and it has a strong effect in our hearts as well.

There are many things that deeply impress people about Vietnam, among them is the Áo Dài. Those who know about Vietnamese culture or have visited Vietnam are often fond of the Áo Dài. Áo Dài is Vietnam’s national outfit; it is usually worn during special occasions such as Tet, holidays, or weddings. Beside special occasions, Vietnamese high school girls also wear Áo Dài to class everyday.

Let’s have a close look at the Áo Dài:

(courtesy of Tran The Vinh)

Nut bam than ao: hooks (used as fasteners) and holes
Ong tay: sleeve
Duong ben: inside seam
Nut moc ket thuc: main hook and hole
Tà sau: back flap
Khuy co: collar button
Co áo: collar
Duong may: seam
Ong tay: sleeve
Kích (eo): waist
Tà truoc: front flap
Tà sao: back flap

History of Áo Dài:

The origins of Áo Dài trace back to 18th century where ‘Lord Nguyen Phúc Khoát of Hue decreed that both men and women at his court needed to adorn trousers and a gown with buttons down the front. Writer Lê Quý Dôn described the newfangled outfit as the áo dài (long shirt)’.

(courtesy of Kauffner)

In the 19th century, Áo Dài evolved to áo ng? thân: ‘The áo ng? thân has two flaps sewn together in the back, two flaps sewn together in the front, and a “baby flap” hidden underneath the main front flap. The gown appears to have two-flaps with slits down both sides, a feature preserved in the present day Áo Dài.’

In 1930, Cát T??ng, a designer of Hanoi, created Áo Dài Le Mur with the inspiration from áo ng? thân and Paris fashion.

In 1950, the designers in Saigon tightened the fit to create the modern Áo Dài.

While its origins date back to ancient Vietnamese clothing, the modern version of the dress has transformed with foreign influences.  Nevertheless, the signature style is not lost: the ao dai is described as a tight-fitting silk tunic worn over pantaloons.

And there we have it as it is today! (with some fashionable variations).

(courtesy of xcanbiet)

Ao Dai’s colors and significance

Ao Dai comes in many different styles.  The color  indicates the wearer’s age and status.  Young girls wear the white Ao Dai, a typical school uniform which is often considered as the world’s most elegant and graceful school attire.  This white garment symbolizes youthful innocence and the wearer’s coming of age.  One of the most marvelous scene in Vietnam is when hundreds of school girls doned in white Ao Dai leave the gate of their school.  This sea of innocence and purity can melt the most hardened of hearts.

Ao Dai with soft pastel shades are commonly worn by older, unmarried girls in her mid-to-late 20′s.  Younger girls can also wear these colors, but typically only to special occasions.  Married women wear ao dai in strong, vibrant colors, usually over white or black pants.

Ao Dai Contests

Occasionally, there would be ao dai contests.  Usually held at Tet festival pageants (Read more on Tet Festivals around the US in OneVietnam’s blog article Spring Festival of Love), ao dai holds a large significance in Vietnamese traditions.

The Ao Dai Significance

OneVietnam Network loves the ao dai.  As a girl (Isabella), I believe that this dress is a national symbol of femininity.  As a boy (Neil), I enjoy the elegance and grace exuded when I see women wearing it.  How do you view the Ao Dai?