Episode 51. History of the Ao Dai

Listen to the episode

In this week's episode, we're exploring the history of the ao dai, a traditional Vietnamese garment. We explore the construction of the ao dai, variations in its design and how it evolved from other garments. Follow the pod at @AsianSewistCollective on Instagram. For show notes and a transcript of this episode, please see: asiansewistcollective.com/episode-51-history-of-the-ao-dai/  If you find our podcast informative and enjoy listening, you can support us by buying our limited edition merch, joining our monthly membership or making a one-time donation via Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/asiansewistcollective 

Links 

Patterns & Designers mentioned

Folkwear 139 Vietnamese Ao Dai by Folkwear on PatternReview.com

Áo Dài Sewing Pattern in PDF Format by Studio82 Sewing Patterns on Etsy

Past episodes mentioned

Episode 11. The History of the Qipao / Cheongsam, Asian Sewist Collective

Episode 19. History of the Sari, Asian Sewist Collective

Episode 42. History of the Terno, Asian Sewist Collective

Episode 8. Silk, Asian Sewist Collective

Resources

How is Ao Dai Pronounced?, Mark&Vy Ao Dai

Ao Dai – Necessary Knowledge About Vietnamese National Costume, Welcome to Vietnam

How to Sew Fisheye Darts, Seamwork

Ao Dai Uniform in Vietnamese Schools, Viet Vision Travel

[Video] How Has Vietnamese Fashion Changed in a Millennium of History?, Saigoneer

Male Students Proudly Wear Ao Dai To School In Saigon & Hanoi, Netizens Admire Their Thirst Trap Pics, TheSmartLocal Vietnam

Áo Dài: History and Significance in Vietnamese Culture, Vietnam Talking Points

VIETNAM | Ao Dai: From Traditional to Trendy, Vietnam.com

Vietnamese Áo Dài History and Significance, Elle

Southern Vietnamese Nguyễn dynasty blue and red áo ngu than, Việt Phục 越服 on Tumblr

The History and Revival of the Vietnamese Ao Dai An Elegant and Timeless Expression, by Caroline Kieu Linh Valverde for NHA Magazine (archived) 

Vietnamese Traditional Dress: The story of Ao Dai and where to find them, Eviva Tour Vietnam

Áo tứ thân, Wikipedia

The Wall, a Costume, and a Nation’s Identity: How the First Áo Dài Came to Be, Saigoneer

Unshelved: Orientalism And Sexualization In The Sympathizer, by Sienna Brancato on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s official website

The Cultural Appropriation of the Áo Dài, Chopsticks Alley

From the Emporio Armani catalogue (Relazioni), 1994. RG @rarebooksparis, Loquet London

Fashion Anthology | Ralph Lauren | 1994 | Women RTW, Fashion Anthology

American Ivy: Chapter 1, by Articles of Interest on Substack

Oprah Talks to Ralph Lauren, Oprah.com

All about ao dai: Vietnam’s national dress, Vietnam Tourism

Thai Nguyen Atelier, Thai Nguyen

The Modern Ao Dai: Alterations By The West – Transpacific Popular Culture, Brown University Blogs

12 Áo Dài Brands In Saigon That Are Modern, Chic & Mom-Approved, TheSmartLocal Vietnam

Ao Dai – Vietnamese Plus Size Fashion Statement, GetACoder.com (archived)

Please note, we are a Bookshop.org affiliate, so we may make a small commission if you choose to purchase books via these links:

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong

Show transcript

Nicole: It’s like, for equestrian purposes. It took me a second. I’m like, swimming? No, horses, people. Me, me. Horses. I gotta remind myself. Yes, like, equestrian purposes.

Ada: Welcome to the Asian Sewist Collective Podcast. The Asian Sewist Collective is a group of Asian people from around the world brought together by our shared appreciation for fiber and textile arts, and our desire to see more Asian representation in the sewing community.

Nicole: In this podcast, we explore the intersection of our identities, and our shared sewing practice as we create a space for Asian sewists and our allies.

Ada: I’m your co-host, Ada Chen, and I’m recording from Denver, Colorado. Denver is the traditional territory of the Ute, Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples. I’m a Taiwanese-American marketer turned entrepreneur and these days you’ll find me running my own natural skincare business called Chuan’s Promise, that’s C-H-U-A-N-apostrophe-S promise, and sharing my marketing tips on my blog. Most importantly, for this podcast, you can find my sewing at @i.hope.sew on Instagram. 

Nicole: And I’m your co host, Nicole, I’m based outside of Chicago, the original homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Ojibwe, the Potawatomi, and the Odawa people. I’m a Philippine-American woman, a lawyer by day and a sewing enthusiast the rest of the time. You can find me on Instagram at @nicoleangelinesews.

Ada: Before we dive into this week’s episode, Nicole, can you tell us about your current sewing project?

Nicole: I don’t have one.

Ada: Haha! That’s fine.

Nicole: We’re, we’re sewing in, uh… We’re recording during September. It’s National Sewing Month in the US. It’s also my birthday month, and I’m like, batting 500 for birthday sews since I started learning how to sew. I’m not doing anything for myself this year. I’ve been kind of like, uh… Yeah, I don’t know. I think it’s more… When I have the free time, what I have been doing is, when I would have been sewing, I’ve been doing organizing. Stuff like clearing out my closet. And that is work. Yeah, it’s not that fun.

Ada: Yeah.

Nicole: But it’s like, well, I have the energy and the will. That’s the most important thing. So, I’ve, with my free time, I’ve been doing a lot of loafing and then a lot of organizing. And I’m okay with it. Not really currently working on anything. What about you?

Ada: I have some stuff that I had precut but haven’t gotten to. I’ve actually been doing…  I started teaching.

Nicole: Oh, yeah. How’s that been going?

Ada: Let me tell you – teaching sewing is exhausting.

Nicole: I bet.

Ada: And, I probably brought it upon myself because during… I… Right after my first linen knot top workshop, I actually taught a facial oil workshop. So, they were kind of back to back, and it was a little hectic. So, we’ve learned and we’re allowing for more in-between time, downtime between them. And even not stacking classes like that. But it’s really, it’s really exhausting. But it’s really gratifying to work with both friends and, and just people, like, students who come in and enroll in the class who are interested in learning how to sew, because they remind me of like, where I was not too long ago. And, the… I find that like, it’s just a little bit different in that, like, the people who opt into a class are very determined, but they know that they need some sort of like, additional help that you can’t necessarily just get on Instagram or YouTube. 

Nicole: Yeah.

Ada: And so it’s kind of nice to be able to provide that and provide resources for them and answer questions. I do find that people tend to get very excitable once the machine comes out. Like, they’re like, oh, no, I’ve ruined everything! And there’s like, proceed to have a small panic attack. Or, oh no, why is it like, not doing the thing! And like, you know, getting over the hump, literally, when they’re sewing. So, it’s been interesting. I’m definitely still learning how to be an effective teacher and how to speed up classes in a way that suits people who have different learning styles and have different learning needs, but also is productive. And so, A, like, I’ve been pre-cutting a lot for classes where I can, where it’s not necessarily, you know, it’s kind of like, a free form. Like, if I cut one angle here for a sleeve, it’s not going to ruin, like, you can still measure the rest of it and cut the rest of it in class, that’s fine, and then it will fit you. But figuring out like, how to make things faster and then also making samples for like, new classes. So, trying to figure out what like, wouldn’t need finishing – aka not a woven, so a knit…

Nicole: Mmhmm.

Ada: And what would work there. So yeah, it’s been interesting. I think we’re, we have more classes on the calendar. Definitely by the time this episode is out, but throughout fall, winter, kind of the cold months here, when people are like, less inclined to be outside before ski season. So yeah, we’ll see. We’ve got grocery totes, scrunchies, headbands, aprons, probably some more garments at some point and then like, open sew, to like, use the machines.

Nicole: Oh, that sounds exciting. To your point about… What did you say? That the students are excitable, when the machines come out? 

Ada: Yeah.

Nicole: Weren’t you like that when you first started? I was. I was like, ahhh, the world is ending, it didn’t do what it was supposed to do, ahhh! Like, but then I didn’t have you or anyone else to say, it’ll be fine. I just freaked out until I fell asleep. And then the next day, I tried to get… Hahaha, you weren’t like that?

Ada: I don’t think I was like, oh my God, I’ve ruined everything. Or, why isn’t it…? I’d just be like, alright, well, we’re just gonna figure it outl, because we got to figure it out. Like… I don’t know. It’s not that I’m not excitable. It’s… I think I’m just like, my reactions are a little more subdued, maybe?

Nicole: I am definitely high strung.

Ada: The thing is that like, one of the people that I taught did tell me after the class that they had ADHD, and I was like, well, had I known that you have ADHD, I would have structured this class entirely differently for you. Like, um… And so I think it’s like, learning how to build a class that generally works for most people, whether or not they have ADHD or any other, you know, learning things that I should keep, factor in. So yeah, it’s kind of like, okay, well, you gotta have enough breaks, and it has to be short enough, so people aren’t feeling like, oh my god, this is the longest thing ever. And it’s gonna, like, some people want to have snacks. And then you gotta have snacks on a separate table. And like, it’s a whole thing. And I think, I didn’t think it would be that simple, but I definitely thought it would be more work than the classes I teach for my own like, day-to-day business. But, uh, it turns out that you need a lot more planning. I think, when there’s a lot more activity going on in the class,

Nicole: Okay. And sharp, sharp objects.

Ada: Sharp objects and heavy machinery. They all asked me, they’re like, how come you have mimosas at your facial oil class, but we can’t have mimosas at the sewing class and I was like, well, you’re technically operating heavy duty machinery.

Nicole: Yeah. Seems a little self evident. But okay.

Ada:  Yeah, like, if you were to sew at home, have a glass of wine, knock yourself out. Have some beer. I don’t care. Here though, mm… No. And I think my friend who owns the space appreciates that.

Nicole: Yeah, fair enough. The lawyer in me is like, liability. Let’s keep this a clean, clean class.

Ada: Before we get started, here are the credits. So today’s producer was Mariko Abe, our researcher was Cindy Chan, and our editor is Clarissa Villondo. [Producer note: Due to time constraints co-host Nicole ended up taking on the editor role for this episode, too.]

Nicole: Today we’re doing another episode on a garment with roots in Asian culture. We’ll be talking about the ao dai [producer note: pronounced “ow yai”]. Note that this is the pronunciation used by folks hailing from the southern part of Vietnam, whereas in the northern part of Vietnam, you may hear it pronounced as ow zai. So for this episode, we’ll be using the southern pronunciation. We’ll share everything you need to know about this Vietnamese garment, its incredibly rich history and more. A few of our listeners and members of the Collective put in requests for this episode, so we hope you’ll enjoy it.

Ada: As Nicole said, we’ve released episodes on other Asian garments in previous seasons. So in Episode 11, we covered the qipao, aka the cheongsam. We also covered the history of the sari and interviewed two people about their sari-wearing experiences in Episode 19. And then in Episode 42, we did a deep dive on the terno. So links to these episodes will always be available in the show notes and you can find all of these episodes on the podcast player that you’re using right now to listen to this.

Nicole: So, what is the ao dai? The ao dai is the national garment of Vietnam, which literally means long shirt in Vietnamese. It’s spelled a-o-space-d-a-i. And in its classic form, it’s a form-fitting ankle length tunic with raglan sleeves, and side slits, side slits up to the waist. This tunic is worn over wide leg trousers either in a matching color or in black or white. The tunic itself is usually made of silk, frequently has fisheye darts, and the fisheye darts are in a, are there so that we could add a little bit of shape to hug the body’s curves. For those of you who are unfamiliar, a fisheye dart is a double pointed dart that looks like a long narrow diamond before it’s sewn shut. The ao dai may also have a tall standing collar and opens up diagonally from the neckline to the underarm on one side. Variations of the ao dai have appeared over time and currently you may find ones with a boatneck, v-neck or sweetheart necklines, and in these variations the collar is omitted to accentuate the wearer’s neck. In other variations ao dai may have shorter or bell sleeve shapes, and one can also choose to have the ao dai fit more loosely. The tunic is sometimes shortened to knee length or made with materials other than silk.

Ada: Since we covered the Chinese garment – the qipao – in the past, we thought it might be good to note how the ao dai differs from the qipao. At first glance, you might think that the ao dai’s standing collar, diagonal opening and form fitting nature make it very similar to the qipao, but there are different and distinct garments. Qipao are standalone dresses and they’re not worn over pants, so the side slits traditionally do not go as high as you would see in an ao dai. Additionally, a qipao is not raglan sleeved. A raglan sleeve is a sleeve that extends in one piece fully from the collar to the underarm. So, if you’re familiar with like, a baseball tee look, that would be usually a raglan sleeve. Qipaos also usually have a frog button closure while ao dai do not. And a frog button closure, it consists of a braided loop and a button knot often made of the same fabric as the qipao or something similar in the same color scheme. The ao dai is unique to Vietnamese culture and Vietnamese immigrants played a large role in keeping the garment alive after they fled southern Vietnam after the Vietnam War. The garment represented a tangible connection to their homeland and was celebrated in pageants where there were large Vietnamese populations. The most notable one is the one that’s held yearly in San Jose, California. San Jose has the most Vietnamese residents than any other single city outside of Vietnam.

Nicole: Huh. I didn’t know that, did you?

Ada: Yeah. They have great food. If you love Vietnamese food, like, I love Vietnamese food, you should eat in San Jose or the neighboring South Bay towns.

Nicole: Good to know. Next time, next time. Well, right now seems to be a good spot to go back in time a bit to understand how the ao dai came to be. For a garment that didn’t materialize until the 20th century, its roots are in garments with much older legacies. Before the advent of the ao dai, Vietnamese garments were heavily influenced by fashion from China, who frequently invaded and conquered Vietnamese land. Standard clothing at the time was a long loose robe over a long skirt. For women this garment was called the ao tu than, which means “four part dress” or “four flap dress”. Ao tu than is spelled a-o-space-t-u-space-t-h-a-n. And side note, thank you for your patience while I’m learning how to pronounce these words that are new to me. The ao tu than was worn by women for centuries before the ao dai and typically by peasant women. It consists of an outer flowing tunic that reaches to the floor and is open at the front like a jacket. At the waist, the tunic splits into four flaps, hence the name, two at the back that are sewn together and two in the front that are not sewn together. They can be tied together or left dangling. The tunic is worn with a long skirt, a silk sash tied at the waist as a belt and sometimes with a bodice underneath the tunic and skirt for modesty.

Ada: In 1744, Vietnam was split into a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom and Lord Nguyen Phuc Khoat… I also, apologies, if I’m butchering any of these words, but we are trying. This Lord was the ruler of the southern kingdom and wanted to distinguish his land and people from the northern kingdom so he decreed that instead of wearing a skirt like the northerners, they would wear trousers underneath their tunics. The top tunic was kept loose and boxy similar to the Qing Dynasty changshan, which literally means a long shirt. Just like the word ao dai. And this garment featured a standing collar as a nod to the Ming Dynasty, which was the ruling dynasty prior to the Manchurian invasion. The standing collar was maintained in the Vietnamese tunic. The changshan itself is the Han Chinese version of the Manchurian changpao, which the changpao, just like the changshan and the ao dai, featured a diagonal opening from the collar to the underarm and side slits for equestrian purposes, which honestly… Reading this and visualizing it, I’m thinking of all the people who currently figure out how to bike with extra fabric. I imagine that getting on a horse is similar.

Nicole: Yes, yeah. I was like, for equestrian purposes. It took me a second. I’m like, swimming? No, horses, people. Me, me, horses, I gotta remind myself. Yes, equestrian purposes,

Ada: No blue jeans here.

Nicole: No, no. And you definitely want something underneath. Well, I don’t know. I don’t equestrian a lot. So… What do I know? Don’t listen to me. Anyway…

Ada: I just learned… I do know an equestrian-related sewing hack.

Nicole: Do it. Let me, let’s hear it. Hit me with it.

Ada: Okay, apparently, I heard this from Gabby, who is @ladygrift on Instagram. You can use a horse blanket as an ironing pad or an ironing cover, like, it is the same material and it’s very warm and thick because it’s used to keep the horses warm in the cold. You do have to cut it though because, it is, I think she said it was molded. So, it’s curved to go on to the horse’s back.

Nicole: Oh, interesting. Well, I have a friend who has a horse and I think… I frequently ask her about… Maybe I’ll… I don’t know, I can’t imagine she has spare blankets lying around but I could definitely use one after melting my, uh, my cutting mat.

Ada: Oof.

Nicole: It’s the three piece one and I melted the middle one. And so, to replace it, I would have to buy a whole new one. Anyway, let’s go back to happier, more interesting subjects than me melting my stuff. So, the ao dai. The resulting garment after changes were made by Lord Nguyen was called the ao ngu than which translates into “five part dress” or “five flap dress”. Ao ngu than is spelled a-o-space-n-g-u-space-t-h-a-n. It’s called a five part dress because the tunic is made up of five pieces of fabric joined together – two front parts, two back parts and a fifth part located in the front to the right of the wearer. The tunic has side slits to the waist and a two collar, a two layer collar that hugs the neck. And this garment is worn by all genders. So, side note, if you’re struggling to picture the various garments we’ve described today, of course, we’ve got you. In our show notes, we’ve included an illustration that shows the evolution of Vietnamese clothing over time. It’s really cool. So shout out to our researcher Cindy for finding such a gem of a photo.

Ada: The loose fitting nature of garments that were worn in Vietnam changed greatly after the 1930s and a key person who drove this change was an artist from Hanoi named Nguyen Cat Tuong. He also went by the nickname Lemur, Lemur is a direct French translation of his surname which means “wall”. He felt that clothing was not just a means to cover one’s body but a mirror to reflect a country’s intellect and he also felt that Vietnamese clothing for women at the time was too baggy and sloppy, referring to the ao tu than and ao ngu than, aka the four part and five part dresses. He just felt it was sloppy, I don’t know, like, passing judgment here. So starting with the five part dress, he reimagined the garment in 1934. He made it more form fitting, loosened the tight sleeves, added puff sleeves and got rid of the collar that he deemed useless. Initial public response to his vision was negative with the general opinion being that the garment did not authentically describe Vietnamese culture or identity.

Nicole: Cat Tuong admitted that his changes made the garment a hybrid of both Vietnamese and French cultures, that he took all the beautiful and convenient parts of French women’s clothing to replace the inconvenient and unappealing parts of the Vietnamese outfit. Ouch. I get it, and like, I know what the, what he was trying to go for. But it is worth noting that Vietnamese national identity was not yet fully established in the 1920s and 1930s, as most of Vietnam’s history throughout time was a part of China. By the time that Cat Tuong made his radical garment changes, Vietnam had been a French colony for almost 50 years. With Western influence permeating Vietnamese society, it was said that Vietnam was having a bit of an identity crisis.

Ada: A wave of young adult women who advocated for personal freedom and self expression over outdated beliefs would adopt his modernized tunic as a statement. Remember, since this tunic would accentuate their bodies, this was not insignificant. And this was at a time when women who wore white pants under their baggy five part dresses as opposed to black pants would be considered immodest and mocked. Unfortunately Cat Tuong’s involvement with what would eventually become the ao dai ends there. In 1945, when the August revolution took place, he was captured by the League for the Independence of Vietnam because his work contributed to the quote-unquote moral downfall of young women, and he was allegedly sent to a labor camp and eventually executed.

Nicole: Eventually, in the 1950s, the garment underwent even more change by two major tailors of that time. The puff sleeves were replaced by fitted raglan sleeves to prevent wrinkles under the arms and around the shoulders. Darts were added to the tunic to help it cling to curves even further. And pants were cut on a bias from fluid material, fitted closely at the hips and and loose at the ankles. In the 1960s, the ao dai continued to be adjusted and changed to incorporate looks that were all the rage in other parts of the world such as the hippie look or miniskirts. Bright psychedelic prints and knee length ao dais were extremely popular with city elites.

Ada: Once the civil war between North and South Vietnam ended in 1975, the ao dai all but vanished from public view for a period of time. The ao daiI is associated with foreign influence colonialism and decadence because it originated in the south and was popular in Ho Chi Minh City, which was formerly Saigon. Ho Chi Minh City was the former capital of French Indochina and the former capital of Vietnam prior to its fall in the Vietnamese War. Thus, the ao dai was considered inappropriate and impractical for communist laborers. At a time when recovery from the war was prioritized, it was frowned upon to use money and silk fabric for luxury garments while so many people were food scarce. If ao dais were seen and worn, they were likely just for weddings and handed down or reused as much as possible.

Nicole: The hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who fled to the west and other parts of the world after the war, left with few belongings, often just the clothes on their back. The displaced refugees built new communities but wanted to hold on to the life and culture that they left behind. Ao dai worn by displaced Vietnamese people became a symbol that preserved their culture, even though they were so far away from their homeland. It’s believed that ao dai pageants were held to maintain a feeling of nationhood. It wasn’t until the reopening of the country and its markets in 1986 as part of various economic reforms initiated at the time that the ao dai was revived as a symbol of the nation.

Ada: Our researcher Cindy notes that the garment changes that we’ve covered so far are very similar to the ones that the qipao underwent as both countries were exposed to Western influence. In the 1930s, both garments became more form fitting, and then in the 1950s, darts were added to mimic the New Vogue trend of a nipped-in waist. Both the qipao and ao dai were disdained during communist rule as a symbol of the decadent bourgeoisie and thus maintained only by the diaspora. Then both garments returned to minor prominence in the 1970s and 80s, as Western influence permeated their countries of origin. The qipao and ao dai experienced revival as a symbol of nationalism and are now commonly worn by service workers and others to communicate a sense of national pride.

Nicole: Unfortunately, another commonality that the qipao and the ao dai have is that both garments have been sexualized and have been a focus of Orientalism or yellow fever in Western media. The garments have also been appropriated by Western celebrities. The ao dai, for instance, has been sexualized by being worn without pants. It is as insensitive as you can imagine.

Ada: Wikipedia claims that Giorgio Armani and Prada have designed ao dai collections in the past, and we tried looking for more reputable sources to back up this claim, but we were unable to find any. There were a few blog articles that briefly covered similar collections, and we also found photos from other designers collections that could be connected to ao dai. So listeners, if you have any sources on the ao dai collections by Armani or Prada, or any other fashion powerhouses, please share them with us. We would love to share them with the community. So on to the photos that we found. One of them is from the Emporio Armani 1994 catalog and in the photo, there’s a white woman with short hair carrying a naked Toddler on her right hip. She’s wearing what some people may consider to be an ao dai or ao dai inspired. It is missing the collar but the tunic is a wrap tunic with ties at the waist and it goes past her knees and it’s tight fitting at the sleeves and bodice. Plus she’s wearing loose matching pants underneath the tunic. We will also link to this photo in our show notes. I don’t know about you, Nicole, but even though it’s a black and white picture, it doesn’t look like an ao dai to me? It kind of just looks like a keyhole neckline top, but long, so maybe a tunic with a keyhole neckline.

Nicole: No, yeah, no, no. I don’t really, I don’t see the… I see the very basic resemblance in, in the shape, as in, it’s long and the pants are wide. I guess I’m interested in learning, you know, like, why did they decide to do a collection in the first place? But with the limited resources available for studying those collections, I think it’s tough. I don’t know. But there’s so much “why”s. In this photo, I’m like, okay, if you had shown… I wonder… Neither of us are of Vietnamese descent. So I wonder, if I showed this to someone, we showed this to one of our guests who is Vietnamese, what they, what they might think. So listeners, if you go, go to the show notes, click on this, and it’s like, hey, do you think they were trying to emulate an ao dai? Um. I don’t see it, Ada. You? 

Ada: No.

Nicole: Just no. So, researcher Cindy did dig up a relevant Ralph Lauren ready-to-wear collection also from 1994. So… What was going on in 1994? But designers were all on the same page as they often are. So it’s possible that this collection and the Armani one were inspired by French films L’Armante and Indochine… My French is even worse than my Vietnamese… Indochine, both of which were released in 1992 and set in French Indochina or Vietnam in the 1930s. In the photos of the Ralph Lauren collection, several models are wearing straw hats that are… Sorry, I’m laughing, keep it all in, let’s leave it all in. We were just talking about the straw hats. So, so go to the show notes.

Ada: They’re cringe! They’re cringe.

Nicole: Yes. In the photos, several models are wearing straw hats that are frequently associated with Asian culture. Doesn’t really matter which Asian culture, people just… Asian, not not any of the different nuances. Anyway, there’s a whole thing about these hats for me, anyway. But we weren’t able to see all the photos and their full size glory since they’re behind a paywall, but it seems like the hats are paired with some outfits that have standing collars, but no other supposed correlation to any Asian culture or garment. The one photo we could find that’s full size, we think it might be Ralph Lauren’s take on an ao dai? I just pulled it up again, go to the show notes, it’s a loose tunic that goes past the knee and it’s made from a beige, olive and maroon plaid fabric, and has a very short standing collar, diagonal opening, side slits up to the waist and baggy sleeves that extend past the wrist. The tunic is paired with slim olive, ankle length pants, and of course, it’s topped with that straw hat. We’ll link to everything in the show notes. There’s no information about the individual designer involved with this outfit or the collection as a whole. Also, we’re not sure if Vietnamese culture was credited since the collection was created before internet usage became mainstream, but definitely go check it out. I think this is, certainly… The Ralph Lauren collection is more representative of what I think we’ve been discussing as traditional ao dai, but also if you look at the small pictures, it’s just a bunch of people in straw hats. There’s some standing collars? I don’t know, I can’t deal with the straw hat thing. I can’t deal with it.

Nicole: Have you gotten your hands on our Asian Sewist Collective labels? They make the perfect gift during this holiday season for your sewing friends and fam. And of course, for you. Our original collection feature sayings from previous podcast episodes like, “This was a panic sew,” and our newest collection is made for the sustainably-minded sewist. If you’re not a bedsheet snob, this collection is for you. To purchase, please go to ko-fi.com/asiansewistcollective. Your purchase goes toward helping this all-volunteer podcast keep going by helping with things like editing, transcripts and publishing. Your support is greatly appreciated.

Nicole: But yeah, I didn’t… What do you think about this one, Ada? This plaid number?

Ada: I can’t… The hats. I can’t get over the hats. I would hope… As we record this, it is currently Fashion Week in New York and I would hope that we don’t see anything like this on our feeds. Right now, I’m just seeing a lot of the early 2000s are back and so our ballet flats and my feet don’t ascribe to that anymore. But I will say that at Fashion Week, there is a Vietnamese-American designer behind Helmut Lang now and they actually featured Vietnamese-American author Ocean Vuong, the author of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, in their work, both in like, the T shirts and the actual display of the runway, and kind of the theming of the whole show, which was pretty cool. So there’s my spiel. About 30 years later we went from Ralph Lauren having some questionable “is this an ao dai” with some rice hats on it to, we’ve got Vietnamese-American designers and creatives on the runway and making waves. So… Yeah, I don’t know. I also have complicated feelings about Ralph Lauren as a designer and a brand. 

Nicole: Mm.

Ada: Because I think, I don’t know about you, but I think like many other second generation Asian-Americans born in the US, in the 90s, and 2000s, like, Ralph Lauren was one of those like, “it” brands. My mom and her friends would be all over their stuff and the little Polo embroidered logo, putting us in those clothes. It was like, if they could put us in one of those polos. It was a status symbol, they’ve made it even if they’d found it in the Macy’s clearance section in the basement, you know? Like, the brand screams Ivy Americana. And the podcast Articles of Interest did a great job of kind of deep diving into the history of that look. Like, Ralph Lauren of the 90s, this period that we’re talking about with this runway, crawled so that J Crew 2010s could run. I said what I said, and I guess more recently, I’ve been doing some more introspection and reflection on the brands that I associate with my experience growing up here. And I think what makes me sad is that when Ralph Lauren was, you know, quote, unquote, coming up, he actually changed his identity and his brand’s identity to make it more palatable, right, so that people wouldn’t question why he of all people was selling preppy clothing. So I totally understand that as a brand owner, but like the fact that nothing has changed in 50 years to make this less true, kind of makes me sad. For anyone who doesn’t know, Ralph Lauren changed his name to Ralph Lauren to be more palatable. And so anyways, with that all the way, out of the way, let’s move on to the technical details of an ao dai. Historically ao dai were made in a silk brocade for the upper class and hemp for the lower class. And then, as we said earlier in the episode, modern era, quote, unquote, classic ao dai are made in silk with a fairly drapey hand. Depending on its opacity, a lining might get added to that. Silk charmeuse, chiffon, georgette and crepe are commonly used. And if you want to learn all about the types of silk, check out our past episode from season one when we covered everything you need to know about this fabric. It’s in Episode 8. Modern ao dai may use lace overlays on top of the main fabric, and the main fabric may be plain, woven with a pattern, painted or embroidered. Ao dai worn for weddings may feature traditional motifs such as phoenixes, dragons, carp and so on. And certain colors are associated with appropriate ao dai wear. Young women tend towards white and pastel colors, whereas older women will wear more vibrant and darker colors. Red ao dais are usually worn for weddings and Tet, aka Lunar New Year, but you can easily find examples online of women wearing white ao dai for weddings too.

Nicole: There wasn’t much we were able to find online on ao dai sewing techniques. For starters, we were only able to find two sewing patterns readily available online. One is by a company run by a white woman and most certainly not benefiting the Vietnamese community in any way. The other is available on Etsy by a qipao atelier based in Shanghai. So we’ll still link to these patterns in case you’re curious and wanna have a look. But if any listeners have better sewing patterns to recommend, please do shoot us a message. The lack of information and patterns for sewing ao dai at home may be due to the availability of ao dai tailors in Vietnam, as well as the ready-to-wear ao dai that is readily available in Little Saigon communities. Do you remember, Ada, back in season one, we spoke with Nam?

Ada: Mmhmm.

Nicole: And we talked about how he learned how to sew because his family did bespoke ao dai in Vietnam and he used to help out which was pretty cool. 

Ada: I mean…

Nicole: And what we…

Ada: Go for it.

Nicole: Well, what we could find was that many wedding studios were able to supply both qipao and ao dai. Therefore we can deduce that there are a lot of similar sewing techniques such as forming the diagonal opening and fitting the bodice with the fisheye darts. Interfacing the collar so that it will stand up is another shared step, as is embroidery, are generally requiring the maker to handle slippery fabrics. One key difference from qipao is that ao dai typically doesn’t require narrow bias binding or making frog buttons from self fabric.

Ada: Yeah, I think, when I see slippery fabrics, my immediate thoughts are, oh no I don’t want to sew with that! Like, immediate panic. But I can appreciate really nicely made ao dai from a wedding studio or as part of someone’s special occasion outfit. Or, you know, as part of those pageants or even as, you know, if you’re like Nam and you, you are part of an ao dai tailor business or family, I can definitely appreciate. I think, some of them have shown up on reality shows before so I can definitely appreciate some of those, like, atelier studios. And having lived in a bunch of places with a large Vietnamese population, definitely have seen pageants or at least events where people are wearing them and can appreciate them, although I think I’ve seen a lot of, you know, poly chiffon, for lack of a better word, because these people look like they are sweating. Maybe that’s just here and because it’s hot in the summer, and the summer lasts forever. But yeah, if you get a chance to see any of these ao dai pageants, or folks wearing them for special occasions, definitely hope you appreciate them. And now that you know a little bit more about the history, can appreciate more about the design and how they got here.

Nicole: I know I say this a lot on our podcast, but I didn’t know any of this before we recorded! Well, and I would be one of those people that would mistake a qipao for an ao dai if you’d put it in front of me before this episode. I haven’t lived in a lot of places where there is a robust Vietnamese community. That, that is, I don’t wanna say vocal, but that displays their culture in this way. And so I can’t think of a time where I’ve actually seen one. So this has been a really eye-opening and, and I love anything, that, any knowledge that really helps enhance the differences between our different Asian cultures. Like I said, if you showed me a qipao and told me it was an ao dai, I’d be like, cool, but not now! Not anymore. And that’s why, you know, again, you’ve heard me say this, I love this podcast for many reasons, but learning new things is definitely one of them. And so I look forward to being able to spot these more. And you know what, listeners, if you have an ao dai that you’d love to share with us, go ahead and do that. You can email us, you can send us a message on Instagram, we’d love to share your ao dais.

Ada: And that’s all we have today about the ao dai, a feminine garment worn in Vietnam and by the diaspora. It’s a beautiful garment whose silhouette and changes over the time have reflected the varied history of its motherland.

Nicole: Indeed, and before we wrap up, I have some final questions for all of you. Was there something we missed that we should know about this gorgeous garment? Or is there another Asian garment that you think we should cover next? Let us know. Thank you for listening, and we’ll see you next week.

Ada: Thank you so much for joining us on this week’s episode of the Asian Sewist Collective podcast. If you like our show, please consider supporting us on Ko-fi by becoming a one-time or monthly supporter, or by buying our stickers and selling labels. That’s right, we have merch – buy the labels, they are hilarious. Your financial support helps us with overhead expenses and will allow us to give back to our all-volunteer team who work so hard to provide you with new content each week. The link to our coffee page is ko-fi.com/asiansewistcollective and you can find the link in our show notes, on our website and on our Instagram account. Check us out on Instagram, @asiansewistcollective. That’s one word, asiansewistcollective. And you can also help us out by spreading the word and telling your friends. We would appreciate it if you could rate, review and subscribe to this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts or wherever you get your podcasts.

Nicole: All of the links and resources mentioned in today’s episode will be in the show notes on our website, that’s asiansewistcollective.com. And we’d love to hear from you. Email us with your questions, comments or even voice messages if you want to be featured on future episodes at asiansewistcollective@gmail.com. This episode was brought to you by your co-hosts Ada Chen and Nicole Angeline. Thank you so much to the other members of our Collective who made this week’s episode a reality. This is the Asian Sewist Collective podcast and we’ll see you next week.

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