The Vietnamese long dress, or "ao dai", has gone through a number of changes in style over different periods, and still survives today, marking Vietnamese traditions. Report by Dan Tri newspaper.

Even though the "ao dai" has not been officially announced as the national costume, it is recognised as a symbol of Vietnam by both local people and foreigners.

It is unknown exactly when the "ao dai" was first designed. Some said the Trung Sisters wore a two-flaps "ao dai" as far back as AD38-42, while others think it appeared in the 17th century, during the Nguyen Dynasty, under the reign of Lord Nguyen Phuc Khoat. However, ao dai also experienced changes in style with each stage of history.

Under the French colonialism and influenced by western culture then, Vietnamese people started to try to modernise the "ao dai". The trend began in the early 1930s, with painter Cat Tuong, also known as Le Mur, who redesigned the ao dai to fit perfectly to the body, along with larger collars, puffy shoulders and wavy sleeves in a fusion with western dress of the time. Vibrant colours schemes were also introduced along with original dark-coloured "ao dais".

The Le Mur Ao Dai fashion lasted for four years until the painter Le Pho attempted to remove all western influence from the Le Mur ao dai in 1934 and used the four-paneled dresses to conform with current standards. His design was popular for nearly 30 years.

When the US came in 1958, Tran Le Xuan, the wife of the brother and chief adviser to Sai Gon administration head Ngo Dinh Diem, began to wear ao dais that had a V-shaped collars, short sleeves and sometimes gloves, her style was praised as graceful and lady-like. As Xuan had exerted her influence on many political issues, the trend was not loved by the public at large or the older generation of Vietnamese, who said her ao dai was too sexual and not in line with Vietnam's tradition.

Ao dais made a comeback in the early 1960s. If previous ao dais were worn loosely before, they became more form-fitting than ever after the existence of bras were introduced to the country. A tailor in Ho Chi Minh City named Dung Dakao launched a new "Ao dai Raglan" to be worn with trousers. The way to sew the sleeves and the body at the the armpit and shoulder helped get rid of wrinkles.

By the end of the sixties, a "hippy" ao dai fashion flooded the streets. These were colourful dresses with flaps to the knees. But then the form-fitting ao dai returned after 1975 with tight sleeves, a high collar and flared trousers.

Over the times, when the fashion world bloomed and women started to show off their curves in Vietnam, the need to renovate ao dai to meet with modern fashion came back to the design world. Instead of fading away like many traditions, the "ao dai" is still the favoured dress at many formal occasions and remain popular today.

The cuts have become more bold and styles are varied with embroidered and detailed patterns. All kinds of material, from silk, lace to sheer, are used to create "ao dais" while some people wear jeans or shorts instead of the traditional flared trousers. Even the two flaps are cut real short or widened, though some of the new designs are not welcomed by traditionalists.

Ao dai is considered a symbolic dress of Vietnam, so it is strongly criticised by the public when a designer alters it to make it more "sexy" or be more in tune with current fashion. Many people say that the new form of ao dai is not even an "ao dai".

Designer, Minh Hanh, who is well-known for her brocade ao dai collections, said it takes a strong will in order to modernise the ao dai. "Many designers want to be creative and unique, while retaining tradition. But they most have failed because they wanted a fast victory. They have forgot the difference between the unique and the strange. They need cultural knowledge and also respect for tradition," she said.

Hanh affirmed that a designer should have passion and knowledge for the ao dai when attempting to renovate this type of dress.-VNA