There are 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam, each with unique and specific clothing styles. For example, ethnic people on the plateau dress in colorful attire while the plainspeople tend to dress simply using natural fibers such as silk, hemp, and cotton. Peasants across the country often wear pajama-like costumes, in the South consisting of a pair of pants and long-sleeved, button-down shirt split at the sides with two pockets in the flaps. The garment’s simple yet versatile style is useful while laboring or lounging, in rural or urban areas.
The most popular and widely recognized Vietnamese dress is the traditional áo daì, a floor length dress worn over quan trousers. The top is slit on both sides. Quan pants are loose and flowing. Le Thi Linh, in my novel If You Walk Long Enough, wears the áo daì each time she appears.
The áo daì, more common in the northern part of the country than the south, was frequently considered a political statement with ties to Vietnamese nationalism and feminine beauty. The dress was popular in South Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s during the time of the Vietnam War.
During the ’50s, Saigon designers tightened the fit made popular in South Vietnam during those war years. This redesign fit tight around the wearer’s upper torso, emphasizing bust and curves. Although the dress covers the entire body, it is thought to be provocative, especially when made of thin fabric. “The áo dai covers everything but hides nothing” is a popular saying among Westerners.
Since the 1990s Asian, European, and American styles have influenced Vietnamese men and women. Vietnamese women wear a variety of clothing including the colorful, elegant áo daì but have been strongly influenced by cross-continent travel, cultural exchanges, and media. The áo daì. usually individually fitted, may require several weeks for a tailor to complete. In 2008, the top and trousers cost approximately $200 in the United States and around $40 in Vietnam.
Some traditional clothing styles have been lost and more modern styles substituted, largely replacing the long-sleeved shirts and wide trousers. Efforts to preserve older-style clothing can be seen at traditional festivals and entertainment venues.