A researcher of Hue culture, Phan Thuan An, said that variations in Hue ao dai are related to the ups and downs of history.
History of the Hue ao dai
Under the Minh Mang Dynasty, the King issued a dress code for the whole country. Accordingly, all imperial concubines and servants had to wear ao dai when they set foot in the forbiddance palace. All citizens had to wear trousers, not skirts. Ao dai also became the compulsory costume of adults when they were out and about.
At that time Hue ao dai were similar to those in other regions, which were often dark in colour, and were a tangle of five flaps. Convenience demanded a four-flap version, the ao tu than or four-flap dress (with the two fore-flaps tied or left dangling to match satin trousers and silk belts). The five-flap ao dai has two fore flaps and two back flaps sewn together along the spine.
There is also a minor flap, which belongs to the forepart, at the right side, which hangs to the fringe. The sleeves are joined at the elbow since cloth available at the time had a width of just 40cm. The collar is 2-3cm high with the sleeves wrapped tight at the wrists, with accentuation of breast and waist. The laps flare from waist to foot.
For trousers paired with ao dai, while women in the North and the South favoured a solemn black, Hue women favoured white. Royals and the well to do often wore trousers with three pleats, giving a graceful spread to the leg, and increased mobility.
In the early of the 20th century, especially when the Dong Khanh High School for female students was founded in 1917, all schoolgirls from the central region flocked to Hue to study at Dong Khanh, ao dai became their uniform. They wore white trousers with violet ao dais as going to school, which then were changed to white colour in the dry and blue in the rainy season.
In the 1930s and 1940s, ao dai of Hue as well as of other regions didn’t change. However, they were made of much more abundant materials and colours. Women at that time could select various kinds of cloths imported from Europe, which were replete with bright colours.
The use of imported cloths, with their wider widths resulted in seamless ao dais. The flaps were lengthened, to within 20cm of the ankle. Hue women were renowned for their elegance in white trousers and ao dais. The dress gradually became a fashionable costume among girls in various regions, except among married women.
Hue ao dai would not have today’s design without an innovation initiated by an artist from the Indochina Art College, the owner of the reputed Le Mur tailor shops in Hanoi and Hai Phong, Lemur Nguyen Cat Tuong.
He brought a collection of Europeanised ao dais to the Hue Fair in 1939, which were called “modern ao dai”. These ao dai had two flaps rather than the octopus tangle of five as before. They had puffed out the shoulders, were cuffed at the sleeves, a round collar cut breast-deep and laced, accentuated by a corrugated fringe made of joined cloth of different colours and gaudily laced.
Hue’s women quickly accepted the remodelled ao dai. However, influenced by their inherently unobtrusive style, Hue ao dai were only modernised moderately with two flaps and buttoned from shoulder to waist.
In the 1950s, following trends across the country, Hue ao dai became more figure hugging, with higher collars and narrowed flaps, for an alluring body sculpting form.
In the mid-1960, as more women began to wear bra, Hue tailors stitched ao dai tighter at the waist, in an effort to further please the eye. At the end of the decade, Hue ao dai followed Saigon’s raglan-sleeve ao dai, which hid the troublesome wrinkles that often formed at both shoulder and armpit.
But ao dai with high collars were still fond among Hue women, while others sported the low-necked, décolleté ao dai improved by Tran Le Xuan, sister-in-law of former South administration president Ngo Dinh Diem.
The Hue Ao dai has remained almost unchanged since 1975, although the dress is falling from popularity due to the demands of modern life. In the late of the 1990s, the ao dai made a comeback, at the behest of fashion designers.
However, women in the ancient capital were loath to be strapped back into the tricky dress. Today Hue women are still unobtrusive in their ao dai, which are worn not too thin, with long flaps that are nearly touch ground, high collars and low waist to hide the flash of skin at the flanks.
Violet ao dai, a symbol of Hue
An ao dai tailor since 1970, Nguyen Van Chi has seen many subtle changes to Hue ao dai. Even though material and styles have changed, their colour and purpose of ao dai have not. Ao dai with bright colours for the New Year festival; broad ao dai in brown violet, indigo-blue and milky coffee colour with sombre designs for funerals and ceremonies; ao dai in dark colours for rainy days; and light in colour for sunny days.
Most Hue women have at least one ao dai of violet colour, a specific characteristic for this ancient capital. Along with their grace, unobtrusiveness, violet ao dai and non bai tho have become indispensable images that are closely linked to Hue women.