BackArts & Culture » Ton-sur-Ton » Great Vietnam Resurrects Nguyễn-Era Fashion, One Traditional Costume at a Time

Great Vietnam Resurrects Nguyễn-Era Fashion, One Traditional Costume at a Time

In the last four to five years, ancient Vietnamese costumes have gained more visibility, becoming a welcome sight among young locals thanks to the efforts to reproduce and promote historic fashion from a number of designers, brands, and interest groups that appreciate the country’s history and traditions.

Great Vietnam is made up of such individuals. Founded in 2019 and officially going into operation in 2020, the group focuses on researching and reproducing clothing that was worn in Vietnam hundreds of years ago. A few costumes they produce have been featured in the art show “The Quintessence of Vietnam” at Grand World Phú Quốc (2021); the photo-video project “VIETNAMESE? REALLY?! – 1000 Years of Vietnamese Fashion” (2021) in collaboration with the Vietnam Centre; and the exhibition “The Resplendent Vestiges” in Sydney, Australia (2019).

The video project "Người Việt Xa Lạ" by Vietnam Centre featuring costumes made by Great Vietnam.

From individual struggles to a collective effort

Great Vietnam comprises young Vietnamese who love culture and creativity and aim to make their reproduction of ancient clothing as historically accurate as possible. The three core members are 28-year-old Vũ Đức and 33-year-old Trương Tuấn Anh, who are in charge of designing the costumes; and 36-year-old Đoàn Thành Lộc, a researcher of Sino-Vietnamese culture who provides expertise on the accuracy of the clothes and handles customer feedback.

Đức has a degree in political science and Tuấn Anh is a research fellow that focuses on space technology. Despite the seemingly irrelevant backgrounds, the two share a passion for cổ phục, or ancient Vietnamese clothing, which drew them together to found Great Vietnam in 2019.

Inside Great Vietnam's Hanoi showroom with their works on display. At the time of writing, the showroom has been closed.

That was after they both made personal attempts to research and promote what they knew about the clothes: Tuấn Anh learned, designed and sewed traditional patterns by himself and joined the Hoa Văn Đại Việt project; while Đức created cartoon characters wearing historic royal clothes and published them on a Facebook page named Anh Hoàng.

Vũ Đức tells Saigoneer: “On our individual journeys, when it came to ancient clothing, we all encountered challenges, and when we realized that even the official sources sometimes delivered incorrect information on this type of clothing, we decided to become the ones who make it right. That’s how Great Vietnam was born. Step by step, we reproduced the costumes, and at some point, it became something we do together.”

Áo phụng bào, based on the real version worn by Empress Dowager Từ Cung, the mother of Emperor Bảo Đại. Featured: headwear by Phượng Điển. Photo by Bạch Như.

They realized many Vietnamese love the country’s ancient costumes, but often mistake the majority of replica designs available in the market for the real thing. This shortcoming applies to áo dài (narrow-sleeved tunics, considered the national costume of Vietnam since the Nguyễn Dynasty), áo tấc (wide-sleeved tunics, used on important occasions), áo nhật bình (special vestments reserved for women of high status under the Nguyễn Dynasty), and áo bào (round-collared robes for feudal-era mandarins).

Young Vietnamese wear ancient costumes as part of the parade event Bách Hoa Bộ Hành. The walk was joined by many historical interest groups and individuals, including Đông Phong, Great Vietnam, Hoa Niên, Thủy Trung Nguyệt, Quê cực, and Đại Nam Chân Ảnh. Photo by Ann Anh with retouching by Bạch Như.

“It has not changed since the ancient costume 'movement' by young people started five years ago,” Đức says. “That’s the reason why we want to recreate the ancient costumes, to run Great Vietnam — as one of the key players in the process of changing awareness of ancient Vietnamese costumes.”

Lộc joined the team later, after he was approached by Đức. “I decided to collaborate because of the good vision Great Vietnam wanted to pursue, which is to create patterns and textures as historically accurate as possible,” Lộc says. A scholar with more than 10 years of studying and doing research abroad on Sino-Vietnamese culture, Lộc has access to source texts written in Chinese from China, South Korea and Japan.

Costumes of Nguyễn Dynasty court guards recreated by Great Vietnam. On the right is the reference image taken by W. Robert Moore in 1931.

“A lot of people say that what was written about Vietnam in Chinese texts is not accurate, which is a perspective I would really like to criticize,” he says. “Not everything China says about Vietnam is wrong and inaccurate, especially things that were written hundreds of years ago.”

He relies on documentation both in and out of the country to deduce what ancient clothing items should look like, Lộc says. “It has to be a two-way process, with exogenous and endogenous variables. We have information in our books, historical records, from statues in pagodas, temples, and communal houses, as well as in documentation of family trees or handwritten books from the older generation...That is one source. I then compare them with foreign sources. That is the scientific method we use. We never completely rely on only one source.”

A video featuring áo mãng lan, a tunic often worn by court guards or military mandarins of the Nguyễn court.

Promoting Vietnam through cultural products

Art producers and practitioners are the people Great Vietnam aims to collaborate with, since the group thinks art is a great way to reach out to a wider audience to promote Vietnamese culture through costumes.

A few examples of robes and costumes for female members of the court.

“Our target customers are those that are carrying out large-scale art and cultural projects such as stage performances, movies, or festivals because they have high demand for ceremonial clothing and have great potential for promoting an authentic traditional culture,” Đức explains. “Despite the scarcity of such customers in Việt Nam, through our activities, Great Vietnam hopes to gradually encourage people and organizations to think about and carry out such projects.”

The group also produces and supplies costumes to retail customers. They do everything themselves, from making designs and patterns to measuring and cutting the clothes.

A young couple in Vietnam wore ancient costumes for their engagement ceremony. Albeit not very common, historical costumes have increasingly been selected by culture-minded individuals in Vietnam for their betrothal. Photo by Jamex Production.

“In this field, it’s difficult to find experienced partners, so we have to actively research, think, and learn from scratch,” Đức says. “In terms of supplies, Great Vietnam looks for both modern and traditional sources. Apart from stages that need modern materials such as designing, printing, sewing, etc. For other techniques such as embroidering, carving, weaving, it’s compulsory for us to reach out to craft villages, especially when making silk costumes.”

Vạn Phúc, La Khê, Bưởi, Nha Xá, Nam Cao, Mã Châu, and Tân Châu are some traditional craft villages that the group often visits. The process of producing a set of ancient costumes is the same as any other type of clothes, Đức explains. He is responsible for designing the decorative patterns, while Tuấn Anh is mainly in charge of drafting the sewing patterns.

Áo nhật bình created by Great Vietnam, based on a real version worn by Princess Mỹ Lương, photographed in 1931.

“First we would sit down together and decide whether the costume will have patterns on them or not, and whether the patterns will be embroidered or printed,” Đức elucidates on the process. They will then create a sewing pattern and send it to manufacturers, who will cut fabrics and follow instructions on the pattern to produce the clothes.

Photos of their products and feedback from clients are often posted on the Great Vietnam 大越南 Facebook page. Included in each post are detailed descriptions of the costumes and references to the texts from which they learned about the meaning of each pattern and accessory. But behind this thoughtful presentation is a lot of hard work put into finding credible documentation and making sense of them.

Three other áo nhật bình prototypes created by Great Vietnam.

“The artifacts available in the country were either so poorly preserved or hard to access due to barriers in cultural management, so those available outside the country, albeit scarce and scattered, were the ones we placed our expectations on,” Đức shares. “Because of this, our work in the last three years is like sailing against the wind, with almost no support, or struggling to get support, the type of struggle that we thought we shouldn’t have to go through. But also because of it, we got used to finding solutions ourselves instead of relying on unreliable connections that might affect our eagerness to research and learn.”

Mãng lan tunic worn by court mandarins. "Mãng" is a four-claw dragon, a motif often seen on costumes for court officials. Mãng is lower than "Long," a five-claw dragon that's highest in level and is only used in costumes for the king.

Not undermining the authorities’ role in preserving cultures, Lộc and Tuấn Anh both think there should be a collaboration between the state government and private companies to better promote ancient clothing. Lộc tells me: “Both sides should find a common voice and agree to cooperate. The government has an advantage in terms of literature and law. Private units have strong teams and good knowledge. They really should collaborate.”

“Personally, I hope historical researchers and the government will pay more attention to preserving traditional costumes and culture. That is what we should really aim for at the moment.”

Costumes as a cultural trademark

Despite having only been in the business for a few years, Great Vietnam is serious about their work. Their goal is to keep reproducing ancient costumes — from simple to intricate, from the latest dynasty to earlier ones — and fill the gap in documentation and knowledge about them in the country. They also hope that historical clothing will be studied carefully, treated with respect, and that their honest reproductions will help the next generations appreciate the past culture more.

Mãng bào, often worn by court mandarins.

Đức shares: “In Vietnam, the process of reviving ancient costumes started slowly and did not receive enough attention, but that’s not how it’s done around the world, because traditional artworks such as drawings, carvings, and embroidery show the depth of local culture. If we continue to not pay attention, we don’t really know our culture.”

Lộc has a rather unusual vision for the revival of ancient clothing: "I hope people will wear them to bars, pubs, luxurious international events, and on planes. Let’s consider them, even though they are a bit loose, a bit baggy, a bit untidy. They’re called ‘ancient’ but they don’t belong to dead people. So don’t just wear them to go to temples, pagodas, or the Temple of Literature, or the Imperial City of Huế."

“Their name is ‘ancient clothes’ but they are not old. Let’s consider them as just a style, and take advantage of it. Only then can ancient clothing endure and exist in our daily life. If we only wear them to temples and pagodas and traditional ceremonies, they will just stay there, they will not evolve.”

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