Sunday, May 10, 2009

National Costume as Cultural Nostalgia

I do not know whether it was a blessing that I was born and raised in Vietnam. Having lived there for sixteen years, I was exposed to ao dai as an everyday dress (school/work uniform). I used to wonder why people make such a fuss about ao dai: how it is so elegant or how beautifully it compliments the wearer. Yet now that I'm thinking back, there was always a fascinating anticipation everyone (schoolboys and schoolgirls alike) had going from middle school to high school. Guys are curious to see their fellow female classmates in the dress, while girls are eager to show their "feminine" characteristics wearing the dress. It is from this time that there is a stark contrast between guys' and girls' school uniform. While the girls would often complain about the inconveniences of wearing ao dai everday and rarely mention it as one of the things they miss from high school, the guys often recall ao dai as one of the most unforgettable sights after high school graduation. As Hoodfar puts it, "clothing is a means of visually community, while simultaneously delineating individual features of the wearer such as gender, geographical origin, religion, ethnicity..." (4), ao dai symbolizes the Vietnamese womenhood. A Vietnamese woman in ao dai suddenly appears to be modest, well-manners, and beautiful. There are more characteristics associated with ao dai wearers. However, these characteristics are not necessarily true to the wearers, indicating that costume can influence public opinions, especially with the renounced ao dai in this case.

It is hard to believe that one day I would find ao dai to be a subject of cultural nostalgia. As mentioned in the article "ao dai revival" by Prof. Valverde, many Vietnamese communities abroad see ao dai as "a symbol of history and cultural preservation." It is rather ironically that many of my female friends from Vietnam often speak of ao dai now that they do not have to wear it anymore.

It is undeniable that ao dai is an integral part of Vietnamese culture. However, as ao dai being recognized across the globe, I fear that it would become too attached to the image of a Vietnamese woman that it would overshadow the real, flesh and blood human being behind the dress. It certainly is a good thing to preserve one's culture, but would it be considered going overboard to idolize the dress? It seems like nowadays, stewardesses, office workers, teachers, and women in other professions only wear ao dai as a way to achieve the "desired look" of fitting forms and attractive postures. Moreover, with the regular ao dai pageants and fashion shows, ao dai climbs to a higher level, almost reaching a haut couture status (at least in my opinion). What if someday ao dai becomes a commodity (it already is for the Vietnamese communities)? Would it be mass produced with the expensive fabrics of silk or brocade? Certainly there are already differences in the quality (both in the complexity of the design and the type of fabrics) of an ao dai worn by a working class woman and one worn by celebrities or the upper class.

What would be left of ao dai if it becomes a commodity internationally?

Blog #2

by Nghia Trinh

Hoodfar, Homa. "More than Clothing."
Valverde, Kieu Link Caroline, "ao dai revival."
First photo by me.
Second photo at this website

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