Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Traditional Costume

I had never really considered the phrase 'traditional costume' before. I have certainly thought about my traditional costume – the ao dai (long dress/shirt – it's a long tunic, with long sleeves and slit either side up to the waist to reveal long culotte-like trousers worn underneath). What I had not thought about was the diminutive word costume, and the way when stressed – traditional costume – it sounds somehow dismissive, derogatory. The speaker could be saying: the ao dai is not real clothes – it's a get-up; a costume.

When I wear the ao dai, I do feel as if I am in costume. I have only worn it thrice in my 26-odd years on this earth: once to my cousin's wedding when I borrowed one of my cousin's ao dai because I was in the bridal party and her mother was horrified that I would be the only woman not wearing an ao dai – even one of the whities was wearing one!; once to my sister's wedding when I was bridesmaid and master of ceremonies – my sister had asked me to wear another outfit that she really liked but another sister had recently traveled to Viet Nam and had returned with an ao dai just for me, so I donned that instead much to my sister's, her new husband's and myriad family members,' friends' and strangers' amusement; and last and most recently to my mother's 60th birthday party where my eldest sister thought Um would be chuffed if we all wore ao dai. My eldest sister was right, Um was chuffed. Most of the women wore ao dai that night, and when a female guest turned up not in ao dai, she turned around and dashed home again to change into one.

Firstly, the ao dai is not suited to an indelicate person such as myself. I forget to flick the back skirt out when sitting down and find myself standing up again as the collar chokes me. The trousers are too long – they are meant to be worn over and covering high heels. I wear them with flat shoes and trip all over the trailing hem. The press-stud buttons that run up one side are not made for women who gesture wildly when talking – mine invariably pop at inopportune moments and I am faced with subtly pressing studs shut against my chest, or making frequent trips to the bathroom. So something happens to me. I find myself paying more attention to my outfit, smoothing it out, checking the buttons are still done, moving more carefully. I talk less, and not so volubly, because the state of my conversation and volume are directly related to how excitable I am and if I can remain calm in my conversation, my clothes will not attempt to eject me into the unsuspecting world. I sit more upright, with hands clasped in my lap, neck and nose held high – it is difficult to slouch in an ao dai, you pull at the fabric at your back which you are sitting on because you forgot to flick the back skirt out and you are afraid the press stud buttons will burst at any moment.

I am in costume when I am in ao dai. I am pretending to be the Viet girl who knows what to do in a wedding train, the bridesmaid who dutifully follows the bride around and the daughter who hasn't forgotten her heritage. But I'm not. I tripped along in that wedding party hating having to be there and carrying the red-cellophane wrapped mock dowry as an offering; I was a better master of ceremonies than bridesmaid, highlighting my discomfort for others' amusement but completely forgetting about the bride; and I might be wearing an ao dai at my mother's birthday bash, but I cannot converse with her friends.

And what is traditional about it, for me? It is not part of my tradition. I never wore one to school, nor did any of my sisters, who never got that far in their schooling before my family came to Australia. One of my sisters did wear one throughout her early years at the Viet community school that she attended and was briefly the poster girl for. I stomped my way out of Viet community school after the second week of classes when my precocious comparison of English and Vietnamese (I was taken with how the word No in English meant No but could mean full in Vietnamese and gee, I just would not shut up about it) earned me a ruler across the back of my hand. I recall telling the teacher that the English school teachers would never do that; to which he responded that I was probably not so naughty with the English teachers because I could not be sassy with them. I was sent out of class to ruminate over my terrible behaviour and I ruminated my way home, to announce to my mother that I was never returning. She did not try to persuade me of the errors of my way (although now, I wish she had) because I was a stubborn child who knew her own mind. In some measure, that incident is why I am so 'well-integrated'.

There is a new tradition, of course, for those of us in Australia (and other countries that are not Viet Nam) and whose family desire that we remain 'Vietnamese'. (I do not think I've ceased being Vietnamese just because I wear the ao dai so uncomfortably.) But we trot out the 'costume' at important life functions – the wedding, the milestone birthday, the lunar new year and family photo opportunities. It seems that the ao dai becomes the formal dress of the emigre Viet; where in Viet Nam it is indeed the formal dress as well as a work and school uniform. Was it once, traditionally, worn more ubiquitously than that? My mind vaguely recollects reading an article about the sari in India. A part of the article discussed the changing context of wearing a sari – where once it had been worn everyday (and of course, nicer saris worn on special occasions), it was becoming relegated to only special occasions, and sometimes work. Is the same thing happening in Viet Nam? It is certainly happening in the Viet community of which I am a part, in Brisbane.

Occasionally, I contemplate wearing the ao dai to a formal work function. I usually disregard that thought pretty quickly. I already feel enough of a fraud wearing the ao dai without the added complication of appearing 'authentic' to others who do not necessarily know better. I do not want to represent myself as knowledgeable about Vietnamese-ness (Vietnamese-dom?) and the wearing of the ao dai might suggest to others that I have retained more of my ethnic 'heritage' than I, in reality, have. I have, once, worn a mock-up of the ao dai to a friend's new year party. I wore the tunic with low-cut jeans, revealing my pierced navel because the ao dai was split down the middle, rather than the more traditional splits either side. An affectionately drunken friend was flabberghasted at the exposed belly, repeating admiringly oft and to many – oh, they'd never wear it like that in Viet Nam. Shocking, just shocking. I enjoyed wearing the ao dai that night; I was more comfortable in the tighter jeans that allowed my freedom of movement without forcing a false grace on me.

And what of the traditional costume of central and northern Viet Nam? Why has the ao dai become THE Viet costume? Not merely because emigrants from Viet Nam are from Southern Viet Nam in statistically significant numbers. I found myself disappointed when in Viet Nam to sense the disappearing significance of the traditional costumes that belonged to the various regions of Viet Nam. I was saddened by seeing women staff in hotels and restaurants wearing the ao dai, even in Ha Noi. The depth and richness of traditional Viet clothing is falling away and no one is trying to arrest it because a women in an ao dai elicits such powerful responses about culture and beauty, grace and tradition.

Why is it only women's traditional clothes that are retained and imbued with this significance? My theory is that women, because of their child-bearing and rearing role, embody the continuation of culture. Thus, the vision of women in the clothes of their country of origin is a powerful statement about how they have retained and will continue to retain the connections with that country. How women dress is also more scrutinised than how men dress. Women are more symbolic. Men can transgress from – and return to – a minority culture more easily. Plus, men's costumes were less attractive anyway – but this is complicated by the fact that our notions of attractiveness have been developed through the male perspective.

What about the costumes of the ethnic minorities within Viet Nam? I am reminded of images of Sapa girls in their colourful highland dress, the red Hmong, the blue Hmong, the Khmer who all live in the many mountainous regions of Viet Nam and who are disparaged by the 'true Viet' (and I include myself and my family here) as not really being Vietnamese when these communities have lived, worked and loved in those mountains for generations. My father tells me of the smaller 'tribes' who lived around the Delta where he grew up – the ones chased away, scapegoated by other Viet families in the region when times got tougher. I wonder where they 'escaped' to?

Calling certain clothing 'traditional costume' has an anachronistic ring to it. I am not sure why. Perhaps it is the word 'traditional'. It is certainly inaccurate – what about the blouses and pyjama-like trousers worn by Viet farmers, men and women. That has not become 'traditional costume'. I can see the appalled mouths of my mother and my aunt should I ever arrive at a wedding clad in the peasant trousers they would have all worn most days as young women and claiming that I am wearing my traditional costume. I smile at the horror I imagine lighting their eyes, and the way they will whisper to each other, and how my mother will march me into a room to start off berating me only to end up laughing or merely giving up with her incorrigibly inaccurate daughter.


Cee said...

On of my (future) bridesmaids is Sri Lankan, and when I popped the question to her I told her that I'd love it if she wore a sari. My reasoning was that I think she looks fantastic in a sari (I saw her trying on piles of them in preparation for her brother's wedding), and perhaps partly because I thought it would look cool, having someone wearing a sari. Thankfully she said she'd really like to wear one.

But, thinking back on it, it was kind of "othering", I guess - she's going to be the only visibly non-white member of the wedding party, and she's going to be wearing her "traditional" gear. Gah. I think I'm going to check with her again to see if she really wants to.

OTT said...

Actually, Cee, I read the post in which you mentioned asking your friend to wear her sari, and I half-smiled, brow furrowed at the many layers of misconception one can infer from an innocently asked and reasonable request.

I would assume that, if you ask a good friend, that good friend is honest enough within your relationship to express her true feelings about what she would feel comfortable wearing.

I must admit, however, that I would feel 'othered' and 'exoticised' if someone were to ask me to wear an ao dai to a function. People (Viet and non-Viet) have, of course, and, depending on the context and my relationship with the person asking, I have been more or less offended :-) and I may, or may not have told them how I felt; and whether I am offended and whether I tell them how I feel has little to do with whether they are Viet.

But yes, by all means, keep discussing with your friend. Who knows, she many not be anywhere near as conflicted as me :-)

Cee said...

There you go - I had forgotten that I'd mentioned it on the blog. We're very close, used to be flatmates, and she's the sort of person that would tell me very loudly and clearly if I was offending her. She's had lots of practice :-) (Although maybe not when I'm asking her to be my bridesmaid?) I'll bring it up with her again anyway - I'm a little bit worried now!

Cee said...

Also, I have another Sri Lankan friend/ex-flatmate, and if I'd asked her to do bridesmaid duty, I wouldn't have asked her to wear a sari. I've never seen her wear one, so it wouldn't have occurred to me. Which reassures me that my request to the Doctor wasn't motivated by 'exoticising' stuff. I think.

Um, OK, I think I'm getting a little overly defensive here. But I just suddenly thought of that, and wanted to add it here!

n.t said...

i read this post of yours a while ago, and i hesitated. i disagree with you on some points. but let me present my bias' first.

i really like wearing ao dai, and i collect them. on my recent trip to vn, the only thing i bought was ao dai fabric - sets and sets of them. my mum tailors them for me and they look nice, but are comfortable - the collar isn't too tight (i actually don't notice it much even), the buttons don't pop no matter how much i flail around (and i'm the type that climbs trees and fences in skirts and dresses without hesitation), i'm comfortable no matter how much i eat, and the hem of my pants is fine for me to get around comfortably in flats.

most ao dai are actually pretty badly tailored in a sense - most of the tailoring you will get in vn is not that intelligent. they cut a rather rectangular pattern and they use the darts to tailor it tightly to your body (so that it shows off your figure), which means the end product has no give: it didn't account for the natural curves of the body, and took no account of the give of the fabric. and that's why you feel so coiffured and in costume.

i'm lucky because mum is a pattern maker and has sewn for most of her life, making ao dai for herself in vietnam, and briefly to surivive in our earliest years here. however, over time she has altered the pattern of the ao dai she makes in line with what she's learnt as a pattern maker - which means my ao dai is most likely very different to anything coming out of vietnam - i'd even say you'd be rather comfortable in it.

with regards the ao dai as the national costume - i think you need to know more about the ao dai and the traditional vietnamese costumes to understand why it why it is as you perceive it. i won't claim to know enough - but things like the ao tu than (traditional northern costume) and ao ba ba (what you describe in your final paragraphs and more commonly worn in the south) - have indeed been around for a long time, however, they are 'peasant's' and commoner's clothing.

the ao dai as we know it came into existence in the early part of the last century - and was based on imperial clothing. because of this - it is regarded as more formal, and you can see why it caught the imagination of the masses, and why it continues to be worn on formal occassions. if you visited hue you would of seen the emperor's clothes and see how the ao dai resembles it and evolved to be what it is now.

in vn i stopped by ao dai shop in saigon called 'si hoang' - if you go to vn again
you should consider stopping by there. whilst browsing there, the shop assistant showed us images they had collected on their research on the ao dai - showing how the ao dai has changed much over time. it was originally worn quite loosely (like imperial clothing) and over time it was tailored to more tightly fit the body. if you look at the photos you can see how the ao dai takes on the western trends of the time, and this is something that it continues to do. the ao dai is a living design: the sleeves, collar, length and fabric and cut are open to change and are constantly changing.

si hoang is actually one of the prominent ao dai designers in vietnam now - incorporating new elements and going back to the past too in designing his line of ao dai. he has some lovely ao dai which are like the ones around in the early part of the last century which are really loose fitting but are wonderfully gorgeous. otherwise, he paints some stunning abstracts on silk which you can have tailored into ao dai or whatever you like. (and he did a wonderful children's series - he asked children to draw pictures, and they had these colourful bold pictures transferred on to fabric out of which me made a line of children's ao dai)

another prominent ao dai designer is minh hanh - and she and si hoang have incorporated ethnic designs and ethnic fabrics in to their ao dai. i think both have famously used fabric woven and dyed by the hmong people to make their ao dai (which look quite avant garde) - so there is a start of some acknowledgement of the role of the ethnic minorities in vietnam, even in the ao dai.
(although, the former regime was much more sympathetic and good to these ethnic minorities, the current regime has a policy which is looking at wiping out most minorities - actively sterilizing the women in certain minorities)

so that's why you see ao dai wherever you go into shops and stuff. but go home and 've que' and you'll see people in ao ba ba etc. =)

so you're right - the ao dai isn't quite traditional - it's not even that old at all! but it captured the imagination of the vietnamese, and is so versatile and adaptable which is why it's worn so much and everywhere. so whilst what your saying is some reason as to why it's still around - most of the ao dai's prevalance is due to how it has been embraced by women and how it is able to be modernised to follow the times, and to suit occassions (unlike the male ao dai, which only seems to be worn when vietnamese men are getting married)
. the design of the ao dai too - with pants, means you can move like you're wearing pants, but the two tunics make it act like a dress.

so your variation of the ao dai is perfectly acceptable! =) (and i'm sure there's vietnamese girls everywhere who dislike wearing the ao dai as much as you do & for the same reasons too)

(and in kinda trivia - the ao dai was actually banned for a few years under communism (being bourgeois dress, but was later allowed again - and is going thru a new renaissance in vietnam now)- it was taken out of being uniform, and was only reinstated as uniform in the last decade i think.

OTT said...

thanks NT for another thoughtful and thought provoking comment!

I'm probably not going to respond adequately here - there is too much, and it strikes me that we are not saying vastly different things. It's just fun to explore these thoughts.

My main point, however, is that the ao dai is / has become a representation of VN monolithically: discarding, hiding, minimising the great diversity of traditional outfits throughout VN. One of my key rants about race / Asian-ness / Viet-ness is diversity. We are more diverse that the mainstream thinks / expects. But how the mainstream see us (through, in this instance, the guise of our 'traditional costume') is usually one dimensional. Me, I'm fighting that. You, you're helping me. We are both Viet-Australian but how different we are! (and how wonderful that difference is.) You *like* the ao dai. I think it is beautiful - I just can't wear the darn thing! (by the way, I love one of your photos titled something like "wedding Aug 06" - with a serene looking young woman in a luxuriantly blue ao dai).

The ao dai is not traditional for ME. And I am uncomfortable wearing it both physically - because I find it so restrictive - and psychologically - because I am concerned about what I am representing and how I am perceived when wearing it.

I remember from my youth a very kitschy clock that my parents had: it was a map of VN and there were three women superimposed over each of the north, central and south regionson the map of VN. Each of the women wore the traditional outfit for their regions: trousers and a long shirt but in the north it was a wrap around type long flowing shirt, central was a shorter blouse which I can't now recall very clearly (or I might be mixing north and central) and south was the ao dai. And that's not to mention whatever the outfits were for the highland ethnic minorities, and all the other ethnic minorities within VN. Viet Nam, and its people, are diverse. The clothing of the people in VN - both peasants' / commoners & imperial are diverse. and hey, I'm a peasant. I'd much rather wear the ao ba ba than the ao dai. Even to formal functions (but then I don't much like wearing any formal attire - whether the ao dai or an evening dress).

Sure the ao dai changes and takes on modern forms, fabrics etc. My sisters had made some non-traditional ao dai with transparent material for the skirt. But what about the beautiful ao tu than? Why hasn't it been yanked into modernity and worn to represent one's origin / heritage?

I really like that piece of trivia - it is very interesting indeed. Makes me want to research and write a thesis on the ao dai - but another lifetime perhaps :-)

Anonymous said...

the ao dai's a bit older than that. it was based on imperial clothing not from the last century but around the 1700-1800's. what we know for sure from records is that all court ladies /concubines had to wear ao dai once they stepped into the forbidden city, by decree of the emperor. back then of course ao dai worn by royalty and aristocrats was extremely different, baggy and not all clingy to the body like it is today. the clingy-tight ao dai we see today with raglan buttons came around the 1920's/30's.

there are rich non peasant versions of ao tu than btw. however mostly costumes like the ao tu than (and countless other commoner costumes) are what they are, commoner costumes.. they have been glamorized to an extent though :P

there are also tons of different types of royal costumes worn that have changed throughout each dynasty for the past few thousands of years, there just hasn't been enough widespread public interest in it yet.

Anonymous said...

I like to wear comfortable dresses which I like to buy from Brooks Brothers and Old Navy stores through couponalbum.com...

Anonymous said...

:D lighten up!

a national dress is a national dress - some nations have a more versatile and comfortable one, and so endure until today, and others have less comfortable ones that are now mainly symbolic and historical. i don't wear mine every day to work (i'm a southern neighbour, from malaysia), but i do wear it once or twice a week. i don't think you should have to justify wearing your own cultural dress if you want to.

besides, like our own dress, i read that the ao dai was also a 'working dress', meaning people used to wear it to do actual work, even in the field. granted, the cut may have been slightly different, but it means there are traditional cuts more conducive to movement.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.