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For exotic looks, ethnic fashions are wonderful alternatives for the plus size woman. For instance the the ao dai (pronounced “ow zai” in North Vietnam and, “ow yai” in South Vietnam), Vietnam’s national dress, has a styling that looks fabulous on almost anyone. It consists of two elements: a long tunic with a close-fitting bodice, mandarin collar, raglan sleeves, and side slits that create front and back panels from the waist down; and wide-legged pants, often cut on the bias.
While in the distant past both men and women wore the ao dai, in the twenty-first century it is almost exclusively a women’s garment. While the ao dai is now seen as symbolizing traditional Vietnamese identity and femininity, it in fact has a relatively brief history marked by foreign influence. The ao dai provides a outstanding example of how the Vietnamese have responded to both Chinese and French colonization by adopting elements of foreign cultures and modifying them to be uniquely Vietnamese. Prior to the fifteenth century, Vietnamese women typically wore a skirt and halter top. These were some times covered by an open-necked tunic (ao tu than) with four long panels, the front two tied or belted at the waist. Women’s garments were brown or black, accented by brightly colored tops or belts on special occasions.
From 1407 to 1428, China’s Ming Dynasty occupied Vietnam and forced women to wear Chinese-style pants. After regaining independence, Vietnam’s Le Dynasty (1428-1788) likewise criticized women’s clothing for violating Confucian standards of decorum. Since the policies were haphazardly enforced, and skirts and halter tops remained the norm.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Vietnam was divided into two regions, with the Nguyen family ruling the south. To distinguish their subjects from northerners, Nguyen lords ordered southern men and women to wear Chinese-style trousers and long, front-buttoning tunics. After the Nguyen family gained control over the entire country in 1802, the conservative Confucian Emperor Minh Mang banned women’s skirts on aesthetic and moral grounds.
Over the next century, precursors to the modern ao dai became popular in cities, at the royal court in Hue, and for holidays and festivals in the countryside. The outfit basically consisted of pants and a loose-fitting shirt with a stand-up collar and a diagonal closure that ran along the right side from the neck to the armpit, with some regional variations. These features of the ao dao were copied from Chinese and Manchu garments. The upper classes often layered several ao dai of different colors, with the neck left open to display the layers. Among peasants and laborers, however, the skirt (va) and halter top (yem) remained popular for daily wear.
During the 1930s Hanoi artist Nguyen Cat Tuong, also known as Lemur, presented ao dai styles inspired by French fashion. He designed them with light-colored, close-fitting tunics featured longer panels, puffy sleeves; asymmetrical lace collars, buttoned cuffs, scalloped hems, and darts at the waist and chest. Lemur’s Europeanized flared pants were white with snugly tailored hips. Criticized by conservatives, Lemur’s designs nonetheless marked the materialization of contemporary ao dai blending traditional Vietnamese elements with Western tailoring and bodily aesthetics.
French colonialism ended in 1954 with the division of Vietnam into North and South. In North Vietnam, Communist leaders criticized the ao dai as bourgeois, colonial, and impractical for manual labor, although women continued to wear it for special occasions.
When the ao dai fell into disfavor in socialist Vietnam, Vietnamese who had immigrated to the United States, Canada, Australia, or France preserved it as a symbol of their ethnic heritage. Ao dai were seen at fashion shows, Tet (Lunar New Year) celebrations, weddings, and musical performances throughout the Vietnamese communities of the world, which numbered approximately 2.6 million in 2006.
Meanwhile, in capitalist South Vietnam, modifications of the garment continued. Madame Nhu the sister-in-law of President Ngo Dinh Diem, became notorious in the 1950s and 1960s for the very plunging necklines of her ao dai.
In 1975, the Vietnam War ended with the reunification of North and South under communist rule. Leaders derided the southern ao dai as decadent and promoted simpler, practical clothing styles. But austerity proved short-lived. By the 1990s, economic reforms and improved standards of living led to a revival of the ao dai within Vietnam and to growing international awareness of it as a symbol of Vietnamese identity. In 1989, the Women’s Newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) hosted the first Miss Ao Dai contest. Six years later, Miss Vietnam’s blue brocade ao dai won the prize for best national costume at Tokyo’s Miss International Pageant. Simple white ao dai have been reinstated in many cities and towns as uniforms for female high school students, while Vietnam Airlines flight attendants wear red ao dai.
The ao dai has also inspired non-Asian designers. Following the 1992 films “Indochine” and “The Lover”, both set in the French colonial period, Ralph Lauren, Richard Tyler, Claude Montana, and Giorgio Armani presented ao dai-inspired collections. While “Indo-Chic” fashions can be Orientalist in their celebration of a demure and exotic Vietnamese femininity, they are typically welcomed in Vietnam as evidence that the ao dai has entered the canon of international fashion.
Some current designers employ novel fabrics, abstract motifs, and ethnic minority patterns, while others alter the tunic by opening necklines, removing sleeves, or replacing the long panels with fringe. The once scandalous white pants now seem outmoded, and women instead favor pants the same color as the tunic.
So the ao dia has an interesting history. But with the selections of materials and cuts, the ao dai allows the fashion-conscious plus size woman to be simultaneously trendy and fabulous throughout the year and on special occasions.
write by Vincent