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Two Decades of Women's Vintage Fashion in Saigon, as Illustrated by a Young Hanoian

In conversations surrounding Vietnam’s fashion history, it’s impossible not to discuss áo dài and its many iterations across the eras as symbols of Vietnamese femininity, but it would be amiss to leave out the local range of eclectic bracelets and bangles, hairdos and headdresses and the people who wore them.

This is precisely the focus of "Saigon Women 1960s–1970s," a collection of illustrations by Lê Hiền Tâm. Tâm is currently a senior in the Hanoi Architectural University’s Graphic Design program, though her passion lies in the magical world of illustrations, something she plans to pursue professionally.

Taking visual cues from vintage fashion, she created a series of stamp-ready portraits depicting some iconic styles that Saigonese women have followed across eras, from classic áo dài to sleeveless silhouettes, and more. Big, bold, vibrant earrings were popular statement pieces throughout the years while pattern headscarves reflected the flower power aesthetics that seeped into pop culture from the US.

The full set of stamp designs.

From Hanoi, Tâm’s interest in Saigon fashion was piqued after she watched Cô Ba Sài Gòn, a time-traveling romcom released in 2017. The narrow-waisted áo dài and bulky updos that populated the movie’s 1970s sequences prompted her to seek out more documentaries and images about southern vintage styles, especially trends that came from western influences.

A fashion moodboard.

“The fashion of Vietnamese women today has been modernized in major ways, but such changes are all rooted in what’s already there, developed to fit the current time,” she tells Saigoneer in an email. “It might be hard for those born in the 2000s like me to witness every shift, every innovation in how our women dress.”

With a desaturated but eye-catching palette, Tâm singled out a few style snapshots to put in the portraits, modeled by a cast of female characters from different eras — a Trần Lệ Xuân-inspired teal áo dài with a wide v-neck, an outfit of ton-sur-ton beret and striped boat-necked tee, etc.

As a young creative in Vietnam, Tâm is naturally drawn to traditional and cultural subjects, especially organic mediums like handmade craft, lacquer, silk paintings. Born into a family without artistic influences, she discovered the first canvases in the childhood home’s walls, to her mother’s ire. Little Tâm was also a precocious entrepreneur.

A focus on hands as objects to accessorize.

“Back then, stickers were very popular. There was one princess-themed set with many dresses and hairstyles that was popular among my classmates, so I decided to draw my own stickers and ‘sold’ them to my friends by trading for grid or A4 paper sheets,” she reminisces. “I think my artistic inclination started from that moment.”

Tâm’s interest in the arts only grew with time and drawing had become a staple pastime by the time she was in high school. In college, being exposed to many opportunities to do illustrations made her realize that this could be something to pursue as a career.

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