Update: 08:42 | 22/08/2020
In late June, a special show of more than 1,000 Ao Dai (Vietnamese traditional long dresses) patterns, entitled “Ao Dai – Vietnam’s cultural heritage”, was held at the Van Mieu – Quoc Tu Giam (Temple of Literature) in Hanoi. A few days before, the first national conference on this special costume took place in Hanoi. These positive moves show Vietnam’s determination to have Ao Dai recognized as a world heritage item honoured by UNESCO.
The need for a kind of dress that symbolises the elegant beauty of Vietnamese women is not only the aspiration of the whole community but also needed to define its global role.
There is an interesting statistic that out of the 13 Vietnamese intangible cultural heritage items recognised by UNESCO, seven were associated in some way with the appearance of Ao Dai, including Xoan singing (a folk music genre in Vietnam's northern midland province of Phu Tho), quan ho (love duet singing), ca tru (ceremonial singing), Nghe Tinh Vi-Giam folk singing, nha nhac cung dinh Hue (Hue Royal Court Music), don ca tai tu (southern folk music) and the Mother Goddesses of the Three Realms or Palaces.
More than 1,000 Ao Dai patterns showed at the programme "Ao Dai - Vietnam's cultural heritage" at the Temple of Literature on June 28.
However, it is easy to affirm that Ao Dai has been made a default by the community as a typical costume representing Vietnamese culture. In popular languages like English, the phrase “Ao Dai” has no equivalent meaning. This means that this kind of costume has been automatically considered by international community as a traditional costume of Vietnam.
At present, Ao Dai has not had a title corresponding to its value through legal documents and decisions. That story has been always "reheated" again whenever the community found a few cases of Ao Dai of other origins at museums and fashion runways in the world.
In the context that Vietnam could not register the intellectual property of Ao Dai at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) because the registration is not allowed for works belonging to a specific individual, the announcement of Áo Dài as a national dress or a heritage of the Vietnamese people is the most reasonable way to go about this.
Do not work by feelings
The desire and urge of public opinion have brought about initial results as the cultural sector plans to complete the procedure for the recognition of Ao Dai as a national intangible cultural heritage this year. The title will be a stepping stone on another important journey: seeking UNESCO’s recognition of Vietnamese Ao Dai as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
Lemur Ao Dai one of the modern Ao Dai patterns appearing in 1930s, creating a movement of changing women's clothing in Vietnam.
However, the journey to gaining a world heritage title will face numerous difficulties. Specifically, unlike the intangible heritages in the realms of festival, performance and music, Ao Dai is an artifact (costume).
In order to create a dossier for an intangible heritage, it should be placed in connection with a series of accompanying intangible values including elements of knowledge, skills and expression from the whole community as well as cultural practices related to this kind of dress and the meanings of the patterns on the dress.
From another angle, art forms, such as Nghe Tinh Vi – Giam folk songs, the Xoe Thai dance and Giong festival, are associated with specific communities usually limited to villages, communes and regions; therefore, it is easy to define them. Meanwhile, Ao Dai belongs to a very wide community throughout history.
In addition, there has not been full research or surveys on the relationships and connections among many subjects: mulberry farming, silkworm raising and weaving villages; tailors of traditional Ao Dai; creative designers and those who developed Ao Dai over the passage of time; as well as people who have worn Ao Dai and developed its culture over time.
With all these complications, it could still be a long time until the Vietnamese Ao Dai attains the honour at the global level. In addition to feelings and enthusiasm, more adequate research is vital to improve the dossier’s quality while raising the community’s understanding of this traditional costume.