VietNamNet Bridge – When Ngan Nam Ao Mu (A Study of Costumes over 1,000 Years), a book documenting 1,000 years of Vietnamese dress, was released last month, experts described it as the most comprehensive research ever undertaken on the subject. Its author, Tran Quang Duc, a 28-year-old researcher from the Viet Nam Institute of Literature, talks with Culture Vulture about his work.Book reviews fashion through the agesAncient costumes of VietnamWhat was your motivation for researching Vietnamese people’s costumes over such a long period?
I have spent many years studying the traditional culture since it’s my profession. The idea for researching Vietnamese people’s attire arose when a historical film released in 2010 caused a lot of controversy about Vietnamese costumes. Many people criticised the filmmakers for choosing incongruous costumes from unrelated historical time periods and that they were overly influenced by the costume designs of Chinese films.
Then I realised that a lack of knowledge existed about historical Vietnamese dress and fashion. I also noticed that people not only argued about what people wore, but also about origins of the influence behind the dress. I wanted to find some definitive answers.
It’s interesting and difficult research. How did you find your research documents and also the images of attire worn by people who lived during the Ly and Nguyen dynasties (1009-1945)?
I think scientific books can’t be interesting without images, readers may find it difficult to imagine what I write about, so I try to use as many photos as I can. Most pages of the 400-page book contain at least one image.
I found information in the country and abroad for historical evidence about the costumes worn by people from different regions, social backgrounds and historical periods. I also visited the temples of the ancestors of many families in the country so I could see their style of dress from their portraits. Based on documents I collected, I also made seven illustrations by myself.
Would you give an example of the type of mistakes you found while doing your research?
I found many inaccuracies, things people believed to be true for a long time but weren’t. But the most serious thing was the belief that ao dai (long robe) and khan xep (turban) are traditional costumes for men and women from a very long time ago.
Actually, until 1744, people wore simple cloth outfits. Women wore skirts and men wore loin-cloths. This was until Lord Nguyen Phuc Khoat issued a decree to revamp the clothing styles favoured by both the royal family and its subjects. People then had to wear a five-flapped dress, the original style of ao dai, and from there it gradually evolved until it become the current style known today.
Although Viet Nam has been dominated by China historically and Vietnamese culture was influenced by the Chinese, I’m happy to have learned that the Vietnamese people’s clothing and hair styles still evolved from their own strong identity with Vietnamese culture.
While the kings of other countries influenced by Chinese culture expressed humbleness by wearing less extravagant costumes, Vietnamese kings always wore attire that was similar to those worn by Chinese kings. For example, a Chinese king’s crown had 12 tassels and 12 gems and so did the Vietnamese kings. So from this period onward, Viet Nam began expressing its own individuality.
Having completed your research on costumes over the past 1,000 years, what do you intend to do now?
I plan to study abroad. I continue researching Vietnamese history and culture and compare and contrast it with other cultures in the region. I especially want to focus on imperial culture and manners.