Réhahn has traveled to all corners of the country, no matter how remote, to discover and document the traditional costumes and handicrafts of all of the ethnic groups in Vietnam for his Precious Heritage collection and museum. Yet, right here, in his home of Hoi An, there is daily inspiration to be found as well in the national dress of the Kinh, more commonly known as the Vietnamese. Réhahn’s Ao Dai collection of Fine Art photographs celebrates this iconic feature of Vietnamese life.
Waves of women dressed in white flood the streets. Perched atop bicycles as they ride to their next class or sitting on low stools curved over a breakfast bowl of noodles, they throw the long ends of their tunics over their knees to avoid trailing the pristine fabric in the dirt. Their dark hair is visible beneath the conical bamboo hats they wear on their heads to protect their skin from the sun.
In the town of Hoi An as well as many other regions of the country, this is a daily vision as high school and university students go about their days dressed in Vietnam’s national dress – the ao dai.
An ao dai typically consists of a long tunic over silk or cotton pants. It is slit up the sides to the waist, to create a softer line and allow for comfort and ease of movement.
Students tend to favor a simple white or blue ao dai, devoid of embroidery or embellishment, while for special occasions such as the Tết Lunar New Year, weddings and graduations both men and women in all regions of the country wear a colorful array of ao dai styles ranging from pure silk to heavy brocade, embellished with beading or embroidered with cranes, dragons or other significant motifs.
In Vietnam’s megacities like Hanoi and HCMC, the ao dai is also very visible, though less ubiquitous than in smaller towns. Often worn by professional women in banks or offices, teachers and students, it is rare to go a day without seeing at least one example of this ever-present part of Vietnam’s living history.
A Brief History of the Ao Dai
Though many people now liken the style of the ao dai to the well-known Chinese traditional dress, the cheongsam only came into popularity amongst Shanghai socialites in the 1920s and 1930s.
Ao Dai have been worn since the reign of the Nguyen Dynasty, which dates back as far as 1744.
During this era, Lord Nguyen Phuc Khoat, also known as Lord Vu Vuong, ordered a new style of clothing for both men and women, which featured pants worn under a long gown. The garment was in fact inspired by the clothing worn by the Cham ethnic group, who occupied what was then the conquered country of Champa, now Central Vietnam. The new garments were a way to show respect to the Cham and win over their support.
The ao dai’s enduring appeal likely has to do with its versatile shape and style. Modernized versions were created in the 1950s when tailors started to make the form-fitting tunics that we see today.
Réhahn’s Ao Dai Collection
of Fine Art Photographs
Each portrait in Réhahn’s Ao Dai collection celebrates tradition merged with modernity. The eyes of the women posed in these Fine Art portraits are often hidden behind the depths of their hats or facing away from the viewer as they go about their daily lives.
The portraits become less about the individual beauty of the woman and more about the details: the fluid lines of her ao dai, the geometric shape of her hat, and the negative space around her body. She is a vision that is utterly modern while still maintaining her connection to her ancestral culture.
In the Ancient Town of Hoi An, the buildings with peeling layers of bright yellow paint make the perfect background for a young woman walking by. The contemporary shape of her ao dai juxtaposed against the distressed wall, act as an allegory for Vietnam itself – a country with its heart firmly rooted in tradition while its spirit moves ever forward to the future.