The “modern” tunic came in during the 1930s, although Vietnamese women in the countryside still wore the traditional tunic.
Some people believe the ao dai must have first appeared in the South (Nam Bo) because this region was the first under French domination and was a colony directly under French administration. The Vietnamese there were the first to wear Westernized clothes. Westernization came later to the North, which was a protectorate. In addition, the North had a Sino-Vietnamese traditional culture that had been established for two thousand years while the Vietnamese culture in the South was only several hundred years old.
Others think the modern ao dai appeared in the North, as designed by Cat Tuong, a painter whose pseudonym, Le Mur, is the literal French translation of his name, Tuong (the Wall). For that reason, the new tunic was called the “Lemur dress.” Cat Tuong could easily sell his designs at his dressmaking business.Yet still others believe that a Vietnamese designed the modernized tunic, which first appeared in Paris in 1921.
We can probably draw two conclusions about the origin of the modern ao dai:
1) The need to modernize women’s dress appeared at about the same time in Vietnam as in the West.
2) This need found expression in the press, which created a popular movement. Credit goes to two reviews, Phong Hoa and
Ngay Nay, both of which belonged to the Tu Luc Van Doan Group. Although the new fashion may have appeared earlier in another place, the active and efficient writing in Phong Hoa and Ngay Nay popularized the modem ao dai.Painters educated in the French Indochina College of Fine Arts transformed the former tunic with the four or five flaps to show off the woman’s figure. They reduced the number of flaps to two, one in the front and the other in the back and discarded the belt. The new tunic was buttoned and shorter, hanging a little lower than the knees; the looser sleeves allowed blood to flow more freely; the collar was higher or turned down. A tighter bodice replaced the looser Vietnamese bra or yem. Supple trousers replacing the skirt covered the buttocks more tightly before making a graceful descent to the ankles.
The modern ao dai was widely popularized in 1934. Before, only women married to Frenchmen dared to wear such fashionable clothes and leave their teeth unblackened. Little by little, the new clothes won the favour of women who had been educated in Franco-Vietnamese schools, including female teachers, nurses, and midwives, and the school girls themselves. Two trends opposed each other. The conservatives considered the new mode of dress immodest; in contrast, the progressives thought women must catch up with modern times. In the end, the progressives won.
During the War of Resistance Against France, which began shortly after the August Revolution of 1945, only women in towns temporarily occupied by the French wore ao dais.After the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the Geneva Accords divided the country into two regions; then the American War broke out. The ao dai continued to develop in South Vietnam. However, it was not a suitable garment for life under American bombs in the impoverished North; there, blouses were popular. Women wore ao dais only for formal events and when travelling abroad.
After peace was reestablished in 1975 and the country was reunified, the ao dai recovered its role and position across the country. Women’s fashion began to develop markedly after application of the policy of renewal at the end of the 1980s. Western fashions – especially skirts and jeans- began to compete with the ao dai. However, in recent years, fashion designers and contestants in beauty contests have paid attention to the ao dai. Designs for the ao dai have won international prizes, increasing its esteem. And, the ao dai has secured its place as a symbol of Vietnam.