I have always been a tomboy. I may not look like it now, but back in high school, I lived in jeans and tee shirts. I played guitar instead of dolls, and I read science-fiction instead of romance novels. My favorite color was black. My favorite music was rock. Shopping bored me (it still does) and so did gossips, girly get-togethers, and beauty paraphernalia.
Clothing may not have been something I obsessed over, but being the middle girl of three sisters, I rarely ever got away with looking dumpy. If things did not look the way my sisters wanted, I was quickly reminded to change into more appropriate clothing. This prevented simple things like holes in jeans (which eventually became all the rage, thereby making me ahead of the fashion scene by at least a decade) and ill-fitting shirts which hung out every which way (again, totally in style for decades).
I am focusing on clothing in this post because as I am writing about all these Việt queens and princesses, I wanted to develop a more visual image of what they looked like back in the ancient days. To further this end, I wanted to showcase the Vietnamese traditional outfits, the Áo Dài. Having lived in a rather traditional Vietnamese family for all of my growing up years, I knew what the traditional outfits of my people looked like.
They looked like this:
Ok, so the white marble look doesn’t flatter us Việt girls that well, but I was trying to find something that would show the actual style of the dress, without all the flowery patterns which could detract from the simple lines and obfuscate the actual dress.
Hmmm…what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t want to use this picture as an example of what the traditional Áo Dài looks like because, well…it doesn’t really look like this in real life.
This is akin to the runway model (except with this kind of outfit, she would barely be able to walk, let alone run). The actual dress itself is much more practical, and in fact, by the time girls reach middle school, they are required to wear the white Áo Dài as their school uniform.
Here is a gaggle of modern-day high school girls in their white uniforms:
Pretty and practical, yes? And in a sense, they do look almost marble-like in their whiteness. Or at least plaster-of-paris. But again, this is MODERN-DAY, even if it is purported to be traditional. I wanted to go beyond the traditional. I wanted to see what Việt girls wore two-thousand years ago, back in the days of The Trưng sisters.
Lucky for me, I found a photo of a very very old ceramic piece that shows what the outfit for the female looked like back in the old days.
The outfit looks very similar to the Áo Dài in the northern style with one important difference. The skirt part of the Áo Dài looks as if it is multiple layers that are on top of a skirt that is not split apart. It is a full skirt. This important distinction was not something that the Việt women, one warm summer day, decided to change, wholesale. We are, after all, very traditional creatures.
It was at one point in our occupation from the Han Chinese that we were not allowed to wear dresses, for some god-awful reason which does not even make any sense. The women were required by the Han Chinese emperor-du-jour to wear pants, so they split the skirt and put the pants on underneath. Our men were not allowed to cut their hair, hence the many images of men in those days with very long hair.
Hmmm. Cute guy.
So—getting back to the subject at hand…
The ancient outfit would look something like this:
And maybe shortened a bit with a little less fabric for those who aren’t royalty. I do believe however, that this was pretty much what the royalty wore, give or take a few colors. This is rather on the bright and gaudy side for my taste, but I’m sure back then, it must have been all the rage.
Nowadays, women wear these outfits at formals and weddings and ceremonial gatherings:
And yes, they are rather uncomfortable (and I speak from experience). The top bodice is so tight that if we don’t stand up straight as a stick, all the snap buttons pop open. The long train gets caught in everything, so we have to continually grab onto them when maneuvering through tight spots. Sitting down is an intricate detail because we should not be sitting on the back portion of the fabric. The headgear is heavy and fits tight around the crown of the head, giving us a major banging headache after a full day of wear. Since the bottom is measured with a three-inch heel, the hem is always getting stepped on and dragged about the ground if we don’t pick up the pants and keep it up above the floor with our fingers.
It is a major chore to wear this thing in its full regalia. Working women (ahem…the non-royalty) tend to go for the least fussy style, like so:
The dress got cut off at the hips because it is too hard to do daily chores, operate machinery, take care of babies, you name it, with two long trains fluttering about in the breeze like a mad bat out of hell. The pants were regulation uniform, so to speak, so they were kept pretty much as is. The huge headache-inducing headgear was exchanged for the more comfortable light Nón Lá or Leaf Hat, which acted like a parasol and kept the tropical sun from beating down on us mercilessly, but allowed us to use our hands without having to hold onto an umbrella (and we do have umbrellas by the way).
This outfit would have been given two thumbs-up by me because, for real, it feels like I’m wearing pajamas all day long. I kid you not. Sure, it doesn’t look very fancy, but again, like I said, I’m a tomboy. Had I been alive back in the old days, if given the choice, I would choose to wear comfy clothes like this over that fancy royal dress any day.