I had never really considered the phrase ‘traditional costume‘ before. I have certainly thought about my traditional costume – the ao dai (long dress/shirt – it’s a long tunic, with long sleeves and slit either side up to the waist to reveal long culotte-like trousers worn underneath). What I had not thought about was the diminutive word costume, and the way when stressed – traditional costume – it sounds somehow dismissive, derogatory. The speaker could be saying: the ao dai is not real clothes – it’s a get-up; a costume.
When I wear the ao dai, I do feel as if I am in costume. I have only worn it thrice in my 26-odd years on this earth: once to my cousin’s wedding when I borrowed one of my cousin’s ao dai because I was in the bridal party and her mother was horrified that I would be the only woman not wearing an ao dai – even one of the whities was wearing one!; once to my sister’s wedding when I was bridesmaid and master of ceremonies – my sister had asked me to wear another outfit that she really liked but another sister had recently traveled to Viet Nam and had returned with an ao dai just for me, so I donned that instead much to my sister’s, her new husband’s and myriad family members,’ friends’ and strangers’ amusement; and last and most recently to my mother’s 60th birthday party where my eldest sister thought Um would be chuffed if we all wore ao dai. My eldest sister was right, Um was chuffed. Most of the women wore ao dai that night, and when a female guest turned up not in ao dai, she turned around and dashed home again to change into one.
Firstly, the ao dai is not suited to an indelicate person such as myself. I forget to flick the back skirt out when sitting down and find myself standing up again as the collar chokes me. The trousers are too long – they are meant to be worn over and covering high heels. I wear them with flat shoes and trip all over the trailing hem. The press-stud buttons that run up one side are not made for women who gesture wildly when talking – mine invariably pop at inopportune moments and I am faced with subtly pressing studs shut against my chest, or making frequent trips to the bathroom. So something happens to me. I find myself paying more attention to my outfit, smoothing it out, checking the buttons are still done, moving more carefully. I talk less, and not so volubly, because the state of my conversation and volume are directly related to how excitable I am and if I can remain calm in my conversation, my clothes will not attempt to eject me into the unsuspecting world. I sit more upright, with hands clasped in my lap, neck and nose held high – it is difficult to slouch in an ao dai, you pull at the fabric at your back which you are sitting on because you forgot to flick the back skirt out and you are afraid the press stud buttons will burst at any moment.
I am in costume when I am in ao dai. I am pretending to be the Viet girl who knows what to do in a wedding train, the bridesmaid who dutifully follows the bride around and the daughter who hasn’t forgotten her heritage. But I’m not. I tripped along in that wedding party hating having to be there and carrying the red-cellophane wrapped mock dowry as an offering; I was a better master of ceremonies than bridesmaid, highlighting my discomfort for others’ amusement but completely forgetting about the bride; and I might be wearing an ao dai at my mother’s birthday bash, but I cannot converse with her friends.
And what is traditional about it, for me? It is not part of my tradition. I never wore one to school, nor did any of my sisters, who never got that far in their schooling before my family came to Australia. One of my sisters did wear one throughout her early years at the Viet community school that she attended and was briefly the poster girl for. I stomped my way out of Viet community school after the second week of classes when my precocious comparison of English and Vietnamese (I was taken with how the word No in English meant No but could mean full in Vietnamese and gee, I just would not shut up about it) earned me a ruler across the back of my hand. I recall telling the teacher that the English school teachers would never do that; to which he responded that I was probably not so naughty with the English teachers because I could not be sassy with them. I was sent out of class to ruminate over my terrible behaviour and I ruminated my way home, to announce to my mother that I was never returning. She did not try to persuade me of the errors of my way (although now, I wish she had) because I was a stubborn child who knew her own mind. In some measure, that incident is why I am so ‘well-integrated’.
There is a new tradition, of course, for those of us in Australia (and other countries that are not Viet Nam) and whose family desire that we remain ‘Vietnamese’. (I do not think I’ve ceased being Vietnamese just because I wear the ao dai so uncomfortably.) But we trot out the ‘costume’ at important life functions – the wedding, the milestone birthday, the lunar new year and family photo opportunities. It seems that the ao dai becomes the formal dress of the emigre Viet; where in Viet Nam it is indeed the formal dress as well as a work and school uniform. Was it once, traditionally, worn more ubiquitously than that? My mind vaguely recollects reading an article about the sari in India. A part of the article discussed the changing context of wearing a sari – where once it had been worn everyday (and of course, nicer saris worn on special occasions), it was becoming relegated to only special occasions, and sometimes work. Is the same thing happening in Viet Nam? It is certainly happening in the Viet community of which I am a part, in Brisbane.
Occasionally, I contemplate wearing the ao dai to a formal work function. I usually disregard that thought pretty quickly. I already feel enough of a fraud wearing the ao dai without the added complication of appearing ‘authentic’ to others who do not necessarily know better. I do not want to represent myself as knowledgeable about Vietnamese-ness (Vietnamese-dom?) and the wearing of the ao dai might suggest to others that I have retained more of my ethnic ‘heritage’ than I, in reality, have. I have, once, worn a mock-up of the ao dai to a friend’s new year party. I wore the tunic with low-cut jeans, revealing my pierced navel because the ao dai was split down the middle, rather than the more traditional splits either side. An affectionately drunken friend was flabberghasted at the exposed belly, repeating admiringly oft and to many – oh, they’d never wear it like that in Viet Nam. Shocking, just shocking. I enjoyed wearing the ao dai that night; I was more comfortable in the tighter jeans that allowed my freedom of movement without forcing a false grace on me.
And what of the traditional costume of central and northern Viet Nam? Why has the ao dai become THE Viet costume? Not merely because emigrants from Viet Nam are from Southern Viet Nam in statistically significant numbers. I found myself disappointed when in Viet Nam to sense the disappearing significance of the traditional costumes that belonged to the various regions of Viet Nam. I was saddened by seeing women staff in hotels and restaurants wearing the ao dai, even in Ha Noi. The depth and richness of traditional Viet clothing is falling away and no one is trying to arrest it because a women in an ao dai elicits such powerful responses about culture and beauty, grace and tradition.
Why is it only women’s traditional clothes that are retained and imbued with this significance? My theory is that women, because of their child-bearing and rearing role, embody the continuation of culture. Thus, the vision of women in the clothes of their country of origin is a powerful statement about how they have retained and will continue to retain the connections with that country. How women dress is also more scrutinised than how men dress. Women are more symbolic. Men can transgress from – and return to – a minority culture more easily. Plus, men’s costumes were less attractive anyway – but this is complicated by the fact that our notions of attractiveness have been developed through the male perspective.
What about the costumes of the ethnic minorities within Viet Nam? I am reminded of images of Sapa girls in their colourful highland dress, the red Hmong, the blue Hmong, the Khmer who all live in the many mountainous regions of Viet Nam and who are disparaged by the ‘true Viet’ (and I include myself and my family here) as not really being Vietnamese when these communities have lived, worked and loved in those mountains for generations. My father tells me of the smaller ‘tribes’ who lived around the Delta where he grew up – the ones chased away, scapegoated by other Viet families in the region when times got tougher. I wonder where they ‘escaped’ to?
Calling certain clothing ‘traditional costume’ has an anachronistic ring to it. I am not sure why. Perhaps it is the word ‘traditional’. It is certainly inaccurate – what about the blouses and pyjama-like trousers worn by Viet farmers, men and women. That has not become ‘traditional costume’. I can see the appalled mouths of my mother and my aunt should I ever arrive at a wedding clad in the peasant trousers they would have all worn most days as young women and claiming that I am wearing my traditional costume. I smile at the horror I imagine lighting their eyes, and the way they will whisper to each other, and how my mother will march me into a room to start off berating me only to end up laughing or merely giving up with her incorrigibly inaccurate daughter.