Floating throughout the room like coloured spectres, the silk robes project a magical radiance. Each endowed with a unique personality, they hang silently, confident in the knowledge that they are beautiful, they are special.
I bond with a simple blue. She isn’t the showiest in the room, there are no glittering dragons embroidered across her front (although the one that does have these motifs is also a wonder), but she has a classy dignity that draws your eye to her delicate detailing. Only those willing to look closely see her markings, the almost imperceptible lines and shading that give the fabric an endless depth. Her insides are golden, fastened from the world by tiny gold clasps. She is, quite simply, the most beautiful ao dai I have ever seen.
I am at the opening of the Goethe Institute’s newest exhibition — a private collection of eleven historic ao dais. These robes are not simply garments, they are symbols of beauty, a glowing remnant of a rich history.
“The past lights up the present,” says Thai Kim Lan, poet, philosopher and owner of the ao dai collection. Standing among the silk gowns, it is impossible to disagree.
With a name as elaborate as Das prachtvolle Gelb läuft über blasse Blätter (The gorgeous yellow runs over pale leaves), a line from one of Thai Kim Lan’s poems, I should have guessed this exhibition would be unique.
The Stream of History
“When I first saw these robes of heavy silk in glorious colours, I was totally enchanted,” says Dr. Almuth Meyer-Zollitsch, Goethe Institute Director in Vietnam. With the help of German artist Veronica Witte, the three have not just designed an exhibit of historic ao dais, they have created a world in which to experience them.
Arriving at the bustling grand opening, I can find only one sign in English — “floor may be harmful to high heels. Enter at your own risk.” A little dramatic I think to myself, until I enter the room and find that the floor is made of hundreds of intricately laid don ganh, the bamboo poles used to carry baskets. And indeed those in high heels do seem to be struggling.
“The hard wooden floor and shimmering silk robes are polar opposites,” explains Witte. “But in this room the floor looks like rolling waves and the robes hanging stiffly on their hangers become statue-like. What is hard? What is soft? It is all interchangeable in the stream of history.”
Covering the far wall, the image of a historic palace keeps watch over the room, while strategically interspersed televisions mounted on colonial era shutter poles add an element of intrigue. Interspersed at intervals, each screen periodically comes to life with a person speaking. Taking turns to play their part through the screens, the people create a virtual conversation focused on history and time, all cantered around the ao dai.
Entering the room, one immediately feels transported into a cocoon of Vietnamese history mingled with the evolution of the present. The result is mesmerising.
The ao dai, as we know it today, is the product of hundreds of years of evolution. The modern two-panelled style, however, is largely credited to the 1930s French-trained Hanoi designer Cat Tuong, also known as Le Mur.
Blending traditional design with European fashions, he adapted the ao ngu than, a five-panelled aristocratic gown of the 19th and early 20th centuries, to produce a clean cut, loosely fitting two-panelled tunic over pants. It wasn’t until the 1950s, however, when waists were drawn in to accentuate the woman’s curves, that this style of ao dai became widely popular.
By the 1960s, many woman were choosing to wear their ao dai in the ‘Madame Nhu’ style without the collar. The following two decades saw a decline in popularity. Not until the mid-1990s were ao dais once again a popular fashion choice. Today they are widely regarded as Vietnam’s (unofficial) national dress.
Although the ao dais of today create a flattering silhouette, their construction and design is usually not of the intricate beauty found in those once worn by the aristocratic classes. What was once everyday wear (at least for the wealthy) has now become a work of art.
“Something once so intimate is now so priceless,” says Thai Kim Lan. “These ao dais have been preserved by the efforts of my family so that the broken glory of the past can live on into the future.”
Das prachtvolle Gelb läuft über blasse Blätter is not just a lovely exhibition, it is offering viewers a slice of Vietnam’s rich culture. The glorious art of these once ordinary (now extraordinary) garments captures a piece of beauty from history and draws it into the present to enrich our future.
As Thai Kim Lan says, “Without a past our present will be broken.”
The Goethe Institut is at 56-58 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Ba Dinh, Hanoi. For more information about their exhibitions, go to goethe.de. The exhibition runs until Jan. 31