The beauty of women dressed in “Ao Dai” always leaves a deep impression on foreign visitors to Vietnam. Girl students dressed in white long robes take to streets on the way to schools or back home, or gracefully sail on their bikes along streets. Female secretaries in delicate pastels greet you at an office door and older ladies in deep shades of purple, green or blue cut a striking pose at a restaurant dinner. The “Ao Dai” appears to flatter every figure.
Early versions of the “Ao Dai” date back to 1744 when Lord Vu Vuong of the Nguyen Dynasty decreed both men and women should wear an ensemble of trousers and a gown that buttoned down the front. However, not until 1930 did “Ao Dai” appear partly similar to its look today. Now, Men wore it less, generally only on ceremonial occasions such as weddings or funerals. During the 1950s two tailors in Saigon started producing “Ao Dai” with raglan sleeves. This creates a diagonal seam running from the collar to the underarm and this style is still preferred today.
“Ao Dai”is made individually to fit each customer's shape to create the most graceful look. Its body-hugging top flows over wide trousers that brush the floor. The pants should reach the soles of the feet and flow along the floor. Splits in the gown extend well above waist height and make it comfortable and easy to move in.
Comfortability is always taken into account for fashions and beauty. Tailoring must ensure the wearer's freedom of movements. Despite it is a long robe, “Ao Dai” must be cool to wear. Synthetic or silk fabrics are preferred as they do not crush and are quick drying, making the “Ao Dai” a practical uniform for daily wear.
The color is indicative of the wearer's age and status. Young girls wear pure white, fully-lined outfits symbolizing their purity. Older but unmarried girls move into soft pastel shades. Only married women wear “Ao Dai”in strong, rich colors, usually over white or black pants. However, “Ao Dai” is rarely seen in places where manual work is practiced. The nineties saw a real resurgence of ao dai. It has become standard and common attire for girl students as well as female staff at offices and hotels. Traditionally, “Ao Dai” has become the most preferred dress on formal occasions.
Today, “Ao Dai” has been a bit modified. Its length is cut shorter usually just below the knee. Variations in the neck, between boat and mandarin style, are common. And even adventurous alterations such as a low scooped neckline, puffed sleeves or off the shoulder designs are appearing as ladies experiment with fashion. Color patterns are no longer rigidly controlled and accesses to new fabrics have generated some dazzling results. However, most visitors to Vietnam have highly appreciated local tailors' skills when making “Ao Dai”. It is hard to think of a more elegant, demure and charming outfit, that suits Vietnamese women of different ages than “Ao Dai”.