The Cultural Appropriation of the Áo Dài
Updated: May 26, 2021
The Áo Dài is the beautiful Vietnamese traditional clothing that both men and women wear, although more commonly worn by women. The wear consists of a long tunic dress with high slits on the side accompanied with loose trousers underneath the dress.
The Áo Dài dates back to the 18th century when the outfit was worn at a court at the Nguyễn Lords at Huế. Then in the 19th and early 20th century, the outfit evolved into a five-paneled aristocratic gown before it became a modern dress in the 1920s to 1930s. The style that is worn today was updated in the 1950’s by Saigon designers who tightened the fit.
The dress also traditionally expresses Vietnamese women’s age and status. Younger ladies wear white since it represents purity and a youthful spirit while women who are married like to wear rich and strong colorful shades. Colorful and intricate patterns are chosen for special occasions such as Tet and other festivals.
Some say the design is said to “cover everything, but hide nothing” since the dress is tight around the breast area which accentuates the curves on the female body. The Áo Dài is made from special types of soft fabrics or the finest silk. It makes sense that this dress is made of fine material because it captures the essence and glory of the Vietnamese culture. The Áo Dài combines beauty, modesty, and the grace of Vietnamese beauty.
As the world becomes more globalized, the West comes into contact with new cultures and traditions. One recurring problem the West has is appropriating culture. As I have explained above, the Áo Dài has a wonderful history and is a beautiful tradition. Westerners tend to overlook the cultural importance behind a tradition, reducing the history to “looking cool” or “trendy.”
This leads to people like Kacey Musgraves, who was called out for cultural appropriation when she posted a photo of her in an Áo Dài with no loose trousers underneath. This is a case of appropriation because she is mixing traditional Vietnamese wear with traditional Indian jewelry which just goes to show Musgraves did not do her research and that she is simply wearing those pieces for “fashion.” Musgraves is also sexualizing the Áo Dài by not wearing anything underneath the tunic dress.
This is a problem because it is over sexualizing the Áo Dài as the high slit exposes the person greatly when wearing nothing underneath. Asian women are already hypersexualized and fetishized, which can be seen in the recent incident where a white man killed eight people at Atlanta Spas. Six out of eight people were Asian women. The shooter revealed that he had a “sex addiction” and saw the Asian ladies as sexual temptations.
Another problem with cultural appropriation is that white-owned brands start to replicate or “take inspiration” (more like steal designs) from traditional wear. These brands are taking away profits and opportunities from the locally owned shops and minimizing a tradition down to a fashion trend.
Also, know that there is a difference between culture appreciation and appropriation. Appreciation is wearing an Áo Dài while attending a Vietnamese wedding or visiting Vietnam. Appropriation is buying a $500 Áo Dài made by Karen and her fast fashion brand. Culture is not a fashion trend. There is a long history and culture behind the Áo Dài and it should be valued and respected. This beautiful dress should not be exploited by non-POC who disregard the cultural significance in order to make profit. Appreciation starts with being educated on the tradition and history behind the fashion. So next time you see a “Vietnamese-inspired dress” on fast fashion websites or boutiques owned by non-POC, just keep scrolling.
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Chopsticks Alley Editorial Intern
Harleen is a freshman at Foothill College pursuing her B.A. in philosophy. She ran
her high school’s newspaper PHHS The Legend as a managing editor, and was later inducted into the Quill and Scroll Honor Society as a lifetime member. Growing up in San Jose, Harleen hopes to write about and amplify the voices of the Vietnamese and Pinoy community that she is surrounded by. She hopes to become a lawyer who will give back to her community.