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[Photos] A Converse-Royal Costume Mashup for Vietnam's History Buffs and Sneakerheads

‘Tis the time for wearable history.

In 1931, National Geographic photographer W. Robert Moore took a trip to Southeast Asia in which he spent time traveling to Angkor Wat, Cambodia and various locations in Vietnam. Moore’s visit yielded a collection of colored photographs of life in Hue’s Imperial City in the 30s. Taken during a time when colored photography was rare, his shots became an invaluable resource for today’s historians, costume designers and illustrators to use as references for academic and creative projects alike.

In Moore’s archive, a particular photo stood out more than others: a shot of Princess My Luong on her throne in the courtyard of the royal house, basking in the morning sun. Behind her, two maids stand with their hands folded across their chests, each wielding an elaborate fan. Luong was the eldest daughter of Duc Duc Emperor and the older sister of Emperor Thanh Thai. The special aspect of the snapshot, however, is neither their timid posture nor the sun, but what Luong is wearing: a regal, intricately embroidered, but not gaudy robe in a bright shade of vermillion.

The robe is called áo Nhật Bình, a special item of clothing that was reserved for female members of the royal family. “Nhật” means rectangle, referring to the shape the pattern makes around the neck area when the robe is buttoned. Luong’s outfit also features a cobalt blue headdress, mấn, which provides a stark contrast with the red robe, but also neatly fits in with the five bands of colors at the hem of the sleeves, representing the five elements in traditional Vietnamese culture – metal, wood, water, fire and earth.

Princess My Luong’s Nhat Binh robe – especially as depicted in this W. Robert Moore photo in its full vibrant glory – has inspired many restoration projects by contemporary designers and history buffs. Last year, a collective of history enthusiasts called Nguyen Phong Doan Linh made an attempt to recreate the robe from scratch. Recently, the áo dài-like jacket has once again been placed in the spotlight: this time, in the form of a pair of Converse high-top sneakers.

The Nhat Binh-inspired shoe project was undertaken by La Quoc Bao, a Vietnamese architecture student at Australia’s Monash University. Save for the pair of Converse sneakers as the canvas, the entire project was hand-painted using diluted leather paint in 15 hours, according to Bao. The robe’s most iconic details were rearranged on the sneakers in a way that simulates the robe.

The cobalt blue of the headdress is moved to the toe cape while the body takes on the robe's shade of vermillion. Along the row of sneaker eyelets, one can spot the flower and weaving patterns found on the neck of Nhat Binh. On the tongue of the shoe, concentric circles like those on the bottom of the robe are painted a metallic yellow, and last but not least, at the back is a column of five colors that brings to mind the five traditional elements.

Painting over one’s pair of Converse sneakers is nothing new – most middle-schoolers have been through that phase. Similarly, borrowing design motifs from ancient Vietnamese costumes has been done before. Not long ago, Australia-based organization Vietnam Centre successfully crowdfunded its campaign to turn these historical costumes into a design book. Nonetheless, Bao’s attempt at modernizing the Nhat Binh is a pleasure to look at, smudges and all.

Have a peek at some photos of the Nhat Binh-inspired pair of Converse high-top sneakers below:

View the entire Facebook album of the project here.


Related Articles:

[Photos] A Group of History Buffs Have Recreated a Royal Costume From Scratch

Weaving a Realm: Documenting Vietnam's Royal Costumes From the 15th Century

Preserving Hanoi's Hang Trong Paintings Through Digitization