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Ao dai represents Vietnamese identity

Update: February, 18/2015 - 08:10

by Nguyen My Ha

In a fast-changing society like Viet Nam today, what best represents the Vietnamese identity? The language? A bowl of pho? A conical hat?

If you only speak Vietnamese, people who do not speak the language cannot understand you. Having a bowl of pho has become much easier now, not only in Viet Nam but across the world. Some restaurants do not even have Vietnamese owners.

Outside Viet Nam, the conical hat represents the country's farmers, devastated by war and its consequences. Very few people actually wear them.

For me, the most representative image of Viet Nam is the ao dai (long robe).

A recent exhibition at the Goethe Institute in Ha Noi showcased a collection of royal ao dai worn by the country's last dynasty, the Nguyen royalty. The garments belong to Thai Kim Lan, a Vietnamese expatriate living in Munich, Germany, and teaching Oriental philosophy at Maximilian University. The exhibition was curated by a young German artist.

The dozen ao dai are made of the finest silk and feature vibrant colours and very simple designs. My daughters, ages 7 and 11, were fascinated by them. The elder told me, "Mummy, I want to wear this princess ao dai."

These robes are nothing like the ao dai you may have seen young schoolgirls wearing or the velvet garments of elderly ladies. The arms are not cut out and one flap is designed on one large piece of fabric. The front and back are not straight, but cut to make part of a circle so that when people wear them, they have a wavy look.

The most intricate detail I found is that the linings are all made of silk in really vibrant colours – pomegranate red, tumeric yellow and azure blue – while the outer layers are of much more subdued colours.

On one hand, I felt delighted to come so close to real things that people of the past actually wore, something I was lucky enough to have experienced when I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum back in 2002.

On the other hand, the ao dai were displayed on a floor made of 1,300 shoulder poles. You actually had to walk on the shoulder poles to see the costumes. What is a more condescending act than that?

The shoulder pole represents farming women carrying the livelihood of their whole family when they do farmwork in the countryside. The shoulder pole means they carry their family with them when they go to make ends meet in big cities.

When I spoke to Thai Kim Lan about what I felt, she did not feel the same way but encouraged me to write about it.

The floor symbolises how the royalty thrived on top of the masses' combined hardwork, sweat and tears. Though royalty is a thing of the past in the country, some Vietnamese want to keep some remnants of it. Just last week, the horse carriage of King Thanh Thai was taken back to Viet Nam.

Yes, we do want to keep these clothes carefully protected in a museum, but not to wear them, because they are heavy and uncomfortable. The ao dai style you see everywhere today actually was created by painter Cat Tuong (his nickname: Le Mur means "the wall" in French and Tuong in Vietnamese).

He graduated from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts College) in Ha Noi in 1933. The early 1930s saw an influx of western influence not only in Viet Nam, but also across Asia's big cities like Tokyo and Shanghai. The Art Deco movement influenced the buildings during this period and impressive examples of this style can still be seen today in Ha Noi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Lat, where they are best preserved.

A member of the Tu luc Van Doan (A Self-help Literary Movement), painter Le Mur Cat Tuong reformed the traditional long robes of the upper class.

"Though clothes are used to cover our bodies, but it is the mirror that reflects the intellectual concept of a country," he said.

It should not only be intellectuals who wear them. The finest robes reflect the hard work of the mulberry farmers who pick the best leaves to feed the silkworms, then the expertise of the weaver and last but not least, the tailor. The silk ao dai we wear today reflect the talents of everyone involved in their manufacture.

With Tet on our doorsteps, the traditional outfit street of Luong Van Can in Ha Noi has become even more crowded. Owner of Phuong Thao shop said, "We have more customers getting ao dai for their children, both boys and girls. It's cold so the sizes we make are quite loose so that they can wear more clothes to keep warm."

This spring, watch out for the vibrant colours of ao dai adorning streets in Ha Noi. — VNS

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