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The Wall, a Costume, and a Nation's Identity: How the First Áo Dài Came to Be

How does a nation represent itself to the world?

There is the flag, the anthem and, of course, the name. Some nations have a distinctive costume as well. The Japanese have kimono, the Scottish have kilts, and in Vietnam, there's áo dài. In Vietnam's case, talks of a quốc phục, or national costume, came long before 'Tiến Quân Ca' became the national anthem, before the yellow star on a red field became the national flag. The need for a quốc phục preceded even the name "Việt Nam" itself.

When Vietnam was still a colony of the French, and people still referred to the country as Annam or Indochina, discussions surrounding a costume that could capture the identity of the nation had already begun. And it started with one man who was called "the wall."

The wall

Nguyễn Cát Tường was born in 1911 in Son Tay Province. His nickname, Lemur, was the French translation of his Vietnamese name, Tường, meaning "wall." He was described as a tall and slender fellow, always with a smile and a brush in hand. At the age of 17, Lemur attended the Indochinese Fine Arts University and went on to be one of Hanoi's more successful artists at the time.

A young Nguyễn Cát Tường. Photo courtesy of Martina Nguyễn.

"Lemur was the first one to say that Vietnam needs a costume to describe its identity," says Martina Thục Nhi Nguyễn, associate professor of History at Baruch College of the City University of New York. Martina Nguyễn wrote a book on Tự Lực Văn Đoàn, or the Self-Reliant Literary Group, in which she dedicates a whole chapter to Lemur, who was a collaborator of the group then.

In Lemur's time, the áo dài as we know it today didn't exist yet, there were only its predecessors: áo tứ thân and áo ngũ thân, or four-flap and five-flap tunics. According to Martina Nguyễn, these tunics were perceived as just clothing: "They were not seen as traditional costumes or national symbols. But Lemur said clothing means much more than just an outfit and Vietnam needed one to describe its identity."

Pictures of four-flap and five-flap tunics. Photo via Flickr user manhhai.

In a column for Phong Hóa, the Self-Reliant group's periodical, Lemur wrote that clothing was not just for covering the body, it could also be a mirror to reflect a country's intellect. He said the Vietnamese women's clothing at the time — four-flap and five-flap tunics — was too baggy and sloppy, and women needed clothes that were better-fitted, simple, elegant and, above all, "It must have the characteristics of our nation."

Using the five-flap as a base, Lemur began his clothing reform. He loosened the tight sleeves, got rid of the "useless" collar, and redesigned the pants and the flap to better fit the female body. Then, in Phong Hóa issue 90, he sketched his full vision of the costume that could represent Vietnam.

Lemur's sketch. Photo via Phong Hoá issue 90.

A nation's identity

It was 1934 when Lemur introduced his concept, and Martina Nguyễn says he received a lot of negative criticism: "People said [the costume] didn't authentically describe Vietnam purely, that it is a French hybrid. They said we need a costume that can describe Vietnamese culture and identity in its pure form."

Lemur didn't refute that criticism, instead he embraced it. He admitted the costume was a hybrid, and he designed it on purpose because at the time, Vietnamese society was awash with western influence. Lemur pointed out that people had short hair instead of the top knot, they wore three-piece suits, and shook hands with each other. And so he took all the beautiful and convenient aspects from western women's clothing to replace the inconvenient and unappealing parts of the Vietnamese outfit.

Martina Nguyễn says she is fascinated by this exchange, "because this is not just about a costume. This is a debate about what exactly Vietnam is. This discourse is very important because in the 20s and 30s, [the] Vietnamese national identity was not yet fully established."

Cô Hòa Vân wearing a Lemur áo dài. Photo courtesy of Martina Nguyễn.

Before the French occupation, Vietnam had spent much of its history as a part of China. And by the time Lemur and his contemporaries grew up, their homeland had been a colony for almost 50 years. So at this point, Vietnam had a bit of an identity crisis. Trần Quang Trân, another collaborator of the Self-Reliant group, wrote of this time of uncertainty:

The Lemur outfit doesn't have Vietnamese characteristics. And what are Vietnamese characteristics? Please ask someone else and not me. Come to think about it, I criticize the Creator for creating the Vietnamese, when it is clear that he cut from the French a little, the Chinese a little, the Japanese a little...Only black lacquered teeth are truly Vietnamese.

A time of change

In all their talk about a national costume up to that point, Lemur and his peers had focused exclusively on women's clothing. Apparently, they were satisfied with men's clothing — most men wore the western three-piece suits without modification. But Lemur believed that Vietnamese women should not wear gowns like French women, and argued that they needed a costume that could define Vietnam.

Martina Nguyễn critiques Lemur's argument as being saturated with "gendered language," though she adds that this was not just a problem in Vietnam but all over the world. "The nation is often envisioned as a woman, the nation gives birth, the nation needs to be protected. And who's going to do the protecting? The strong men," she explains. That was why Vietnamese men could wear three-piece suits with no changes, but Vietnamese women "couldn't possibly be exposed to the clothing of French women, they have to wear clothes that are appropriate for their role as the mothers of the nation."

Cô Nguyễn Thị Hậu. Photo via Ngày Nay issue 01.

Language also played another role in this discourse of a nation's identity: the catalyst of change between modern values and traditional ones. Martina Nguyễn explains that Lemur's generation went to school under the French system, where they learned French and Vietnamese and read French literature. Which meant that for the first time in Vietnam's history, there was a generation who spoke more French than Chinese, and were influenced not by Confucianism, but more by western modernity.

This change was apparent in the Self-Reliant Group's writings, which advocated for personal freedom and self-expression instead of outdated beliefs. Lemur's work followed the same mindset, though his medium was cloth, not paper. The five-flap tunic was essentially a baggy tunic worn over black pants; even women who wore white pants could be mocked as immodest. Those who wore his modernized tunic, which accentuates the female body, were making a statement.

In Ngày Nay issue 5, another periodical of the Self-Reliant group, there was an interview with Miss Hồng Vân, the first woman who wore the Lemur tunic in Saigon. She said that one evening while attending a fair, she and her friends noticed that an old woman kept following them. Thinking that the old woman was merely intrigued by their colorful and delicate outfit, Vân didn't pay her any mind. Suddenly, Vân heard a loud ripping sound and her tunic was slashed with a sharp blade. The old woman quickly disappeared into the crowd.

Cô Hồng Vân. Photo via Ngày Nay issue 05.

This attack was just one example of the clash between the old and the new, but it didn't dissuade Vân. She said: "That petty trick does not matter...We should not be discouraged by other people's criticism. When we see what's beautiful, what's right, we need to boldly follow it and not hesitate at all. I believe that one day, each woman will have a beautiful outfit, a unique color that suits them."

Lemur never got to see the future that Vân envisioned. When the government took over after the August Revolution in 1945, he was captured by the Viet Minh at the age of 35, possibly because some saw him as a "petit bourgeois" whose work contributed to the "moral downfall" of young women. Later, eyewitnesses said that he was allegedly sent to the Viet Bac labor camp and executed.

The Lemur tunic was also short-lived, but still it became an important step in the long evolution of the áo dài. And more than just the first draft of a national costume, the tunic allowed women at the time to take control of their bodies and participate in modern life. As Martina Nguyễn described: "The tunic was not just something beautiful to wear, but an entire zeitgeist embodied in cloth."

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