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A lasting impression for any visitor to Vietnam is the beauty of the women dressed in their ao dais. Girls dressed in white pick their way through muddy streets going home from school or sail by in a graceful chatter on their bikes. Secretaries in delicate pastels greet you at an office door and older ladies in deep shades of purple, green or blue cut a striking pose eating dinner at a restaurant. For visitors, the pink and blue of the Vietnam Airlines uniform creates a lasting memory as they travel.

The ao dai appears to flatter every figure. Its body-hugging top flows over wide trousers that brush the floor. Splits in the gown extend well above waist height and make it comfortable and easy to move in. Although virtually the whole body is swathed in soft flowing fabric, these splits give the odd glimpse of a bare midriff, making the outfit very sensual.

Rapidly becoming the national costume for ladies, 'ao dai' (long dress) development is actually very short compared to the country's history.

Early versions of the ao dai date back to 1744 when Lord Vu Vuong of the Nguyen Dynasty decreed both men and women should wear an ensemble of trousers and a gown that buttoned down the front. It was not until 1930 that the ao dai as we know it really appeared. Vietnamese fashion designer and writer Cat Tuong, or as the French knew him, Monsieur Le Mur, lengthened the top so it reached the floor, fitted the bodice to the curves of the body and moved the buttons from the front to an opening along the shoulder and side seam.

       

Men wore it less, generally only on ceremonial occasions such as at weddings or funerals. But it took another twenty years before the next major design change was incorporated and the modern ao dai emerged. During the 1950s two tailors in Saigon, Tran Kim of Thiet Lap Tailors and Dung of Dung Tailors, started producing the gowns with raglan sleeves. This creates a diagonal seam running from the collar to the underarm and today, this style is still preferred.

The ao dai has been more prevalent in the south than the north, and for a number of years after 1975 it was still not considered appropriate for hard workers. The nineties have seen a resurgent trend in the ao dai's popularity. "It has become standard attire for many office workers and hotel staff as well as now being the preferred dress for more formal occasions," says Huong, a secretary for a foreign company in Vietnam. "I feel proud of my heritage when I wear it."

Its popularity is also spreading well beyond Vietnam's borders. For years Vietnamese immigrants preferred to adopt Western dress and blend with their new community but now the ao dai is seeing a revival amongst overseas Vietnamese. There are even annual Miss Ao Dai pageants held in the USA. The clothing has also inspired French designers including top names such as Christian Lacroix and Claude Montana, and variations of the tight sleeves, fitted bodice, high collar and flowing trousers have been seen on the catwalks of Europe.