The ao dai is the traditional dress for women in Vietnam. Developed from Chinese court clothing in the 1930s, this style of clothing went out of fashion in the north in 1954 and in the south in 1975. Recently, however, it has made a comeback and is regaining popularity in the south among schoolgirls and office workers, and is being worn at formal functions. An indication of social standing, the ao dai is worn by women who work as shop assistants or who have a higher social status, while manual workers typically wear a loose top and baggy pants called an ao ba ba.
The ao dai is considered to be an elegant, yet demure, garment. Traditionally, long, wide- legged trousers are worn under a high-necked, long-sleeved, fitted tunic with slits along each side. The outfit’s pants reach to the soles of the feet, often trailing along the ground. Over time, the dress tunic has evolved, keeping with fashion trends, and has grown shorter and shorter until it now falls just below the knees. The ao dai can also be identified by its mandarin-style or boat-neck collar. Young girls wear only pastel colored or white garments while married women wear either dark or bright tunics over black or white trousers.
Historically, Vietnamese men dressed in mandarin style suits. With a tunic shorter and fuller than the ao dai, the suit’s color was traditionally determined by the man’s class and social rank. For example, a purple suit denoted a high rank while blue denoted a low rank. Status was also indicated through a variety of embroidered symbols. Today the mandarin suit is rarely worn except for in traditional dance or music performances.
In general, Vietnamese people dress conservatively. Although some young women wear more close-fitting, Western-style clothing, it is considered inappropriate to wear revealing clothes during the day. One Westerner teaching English in Viet Nam was advised to tuck her shirt into her trousers if she expected respect from her students. It is considered inappropriate for educated people to wear their shirts untucked.