A brief history of Ao Dai – identity symbol of Vietnam

3 years ago 16859

Though Ao Dai (“Áo Dài”), a Vietnamese traditional dress, has been recognized as an identity symbol of Vietnam in worldwide nowadays, but its original history seems undefined still with many different versions.

Some believe that Ao Dai appeared thousands years ago from the Dynasty of King Hung – first Kings of Vietnam according to engraved images of two-flap tunic on antique Dong Son Bronze Drums.


Costume designs with two flaps on antique Dong Son Bronze Drums are assumed similar to Ao Dai today.


Some others assume that Ao Dai originated from “Áo Giao Lãnh” in the 17th century under the reign of Lord Nguyen – Nguyen Phuc Khoat (1739-1765). At that time, Vietnam was separated into two parts: the Northern (“Đàng Ngoài”) was governed by Lord Trinh and the Southern (“Đàng Trong”) by Lord Nguyen.



Vietnamese women on “Áo Giao Lãnh” costume in the old days.


Aiming to identity his empire and show the spirit of independence, Lord Nguyen Phuc Khoat had decreed to modify the dressing code: wearing gown with buttons, replacing skirt to pants, to distinguish his people with Northern people. Thus was born Ao Dai.

For more convenient in daily activities, the ancients had come out with a new more tidy design called “Áo Tứ Thân”. It was kind of four-panel gown with two front apart panels which can be tied together and the two back panels were sewed into one-piece.This costume was for commoners so usually in dark colors.  

Uptown women who did less work usually wore five-panel gown or “Áo Ngũ Thân” to distinguish with the poor class. Different with the four-panel gown, the two front flaps of “Áo Ngũ Thân” were also sewed into one-piece and invented with collar detail. The fifth flap was sewed under the front flap. The garment was plain and loosely fitted, unflattering to the female body. This kind of costume had been worn popularly until the 20th century.

Ao dai

Costume types reflecting class distinction between masters on five-panel gown (sitting) and servants on four-panel gown (standing).

Lemur was the name of Ao Dai in French. It was a new style of Ao Dai, which was created by an artist named Cat Tuong in 1930. Lemur was designed holding closer the body with Western style’s details added such as puff sleeve, heart-shaped or lotus-leaf-shaped collar or collar attached with bow, etc. Especially, dark colors of traditional Ao Dai (brown or black) were replaced by brighter and colorful colors; the gown was dressed with white pants instead of black ones like the old style. However, this renovated design was not accepted by most locals at that time and disappeared after four years.

Ao dai

Lemur with puff sleeves and collar with bow (left) and another design with lotus-leaf-shaped collar (right).


In 1934, Artist Le Pho modified Lemur to harmonize it with traditional Ao Dai (which had 4 or 5 pieces). From here, Ao Dai were with 2 flaps, tightened the body and closed at the neck. This was the perfect design that all the women at that time liked it and it became the only basic design for Ao Dai.


Ao Dai sewing method in 1960s easily caused wrinkles on both sides of armpits. A tailor shop named Dung in Dakao, Saigon had applied new method called “raglan” to connect sleeves with Ao Dai’s body part. Sleeves were slanted connected from collar to armpits. The front panel was connected with the back one of Ao Dai by buttons line from collar to armpit and continued along one side of hip. By this way, it could help fewer wrinkles and flatter the female body but still feel comfortable in moving.  

 Ao dai

Illustration drawing of Ao Dai with raglan sewing method.


In the early of 1960s, Madam Tran Le Xuan (or Madam Nhu), wife of Ngo Dinh Nhu, Chief Political Adviser of South Vietnam Government before liberation, promoted for the new version of Ao Dai without collar section or bateau collar, shorter sleeves and mixed with gloves. This famous version which was named after her name then but also not welcomed by public because it was not suitable with the tradition and custom standards of the society at that time. However, this design has been become popular nowadays due to its comfort and suitability with the tropical climate in Vietnam.

 Madam Nhu on her famous style of Ao Dai during a visit to Europe in 1963 (Photo: John Leongard)


Urban women in this period with open mind preferred hugging body design and tightened at waist to flatter body line. Also, bra was used more popular to replace traditional bodice (“yếm”).

Fashionable hugging body design of Ao Dai in 1960s


In late 1960s, early 1970s, aiming to adapt modern fashion trend - short skirts, flared trousers of youth suitably hippy style, mini “Ao Dai” appeared and immediately became the fad.

Mini “Ao Dai”


Contrary to thinking of some foreigners, Ao Dai is not for female only but also for male. It is for all ages as well.


SaiGon Music Band in 1970 on Ao Dai.

A family’s photo of the last King of Vietnam – Bao Dai on Ao Dai costumes.

Nowadays, Ao Dai still are a favorite costume for special occasions such as weddings, Lunar New Year's Days, graduation day or in important competitions.

Children on Ao Dai on Lunar New Year’s Day


Bride and Groom on traditional Ao Dai costume on their big happy day.


 Cao ThuyLinh won the Best National Costume Awardat Miss Grand International 2014


Throughout a long history of development, Ao Dai today have exposed both strong cultures of humanity, including Oriental and the West. Ao Dai have overcome all challenges to become a "national dress", a symbol of women, the pride of Vietnamese people.

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Did you know?

Hue Ancient Capital Monuments Complex has been recognized as the World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 1993.