“You wear this so well! I can’t believe this fits you,” my mother exclaims. “I must’ve been really skinny.”
I’m ten years old and I don’t think to wonder whether she meant I was a fat kid (because all of her children have grown up “so big and tall” in America) or question why my mom was that thin when she married. I’m just admiring my outfit in the mirror. It didn’t fit as perfectly as she said; the dress panels of the ao dai nearly touched the floor, and the sleeves ran a bit past my wrists. But it was still the prettiest thing I had ever worn in my young life.
My mother’s wedding ao dai is custom-made, sewn by one of the immigrant seamstresses in the Vietnamese community outside of Washington, D.C. The ao dai pants are white silk with a button-up waist that fit snuggly around my nonexistent hips. The brocade of the tunic gown worn over the pants is elaborate, with rainbow-scaled dragons looping through shifting clouds and pavilions on a deep red background. A translucent white robe hemmed with gold thread went over the gown. The best part of all, though, is the jeweled tiara that went on my head instead of a veil. Now I know that the crown was nothing more than costume jewelry, but in my little-kid eyes, it transformed me into a Disney princess. Or at least, the closest I imagined a girl like me could be a Disney princess (Mulan wouldn’t come to theaters for another few years).
Around me, other models are getting ready for the fashion show. Another girl a few years older than me jingles as she walks in her Thai dancing outfit. A young nurse donned her Irish grandmother’s wedding dress, a huge ivory lace and satin affair with a train and a billowing veil that makes her look like a ghost.
The show is part of an international festival, invented by the activities coordinator at the nursing home where my mom works as a creative way for staff, residents, and their families to celebrate. It gives families a reason to visit their elderly relations, and the old folks a time to be nostalgic about their youth. And, for the nurses and staff, it provides a chance to bring the kids to work for a day.
Soon, the activities coordinator, a boisterous woman with a heavy Boston accent, calls everyone to line up for the show. There is no catwalk, of course, but a decent space is cleared out in the dining room, with residents and families lined up on either side.
I remember to lift my head high and swish the panels of the dress so I won’t trip as I treaded past the walkers and wheelchairs. A few people flash their cameras and I look away before they blinded me. At that moment, I can be anything I want. And onwards I walk, a princess in my mind.
Steampunk can be more than simple cultural nostalgia about the way things were or a rebellion against the past (which, unless we really are time travelers, is nothing more than an intellectual exercise). Steampunk is ourselves today, holding the past in our hands, and asking, “How did we get here?” It can be as tangible as gears and dirt and cloth. It’s how we present ourselves, even if we come with nothing but the clothes on our backs.
The history of the ao dai is somewhat obscure. The term (pronounced “ow-zai” in the Northern dialect and “ow-yai” in the Southern) means “long shirt” in Vietnamese. Today’s traditional style is a single-panel tunic with long sleeves and a mandarin collar. It is closed along a diagonal line between the right-hand side from the neck to the armpit, and there are splits along the side that reach slightly above the waist. Underneath the tunic portion one wears loose, wide-end pants that are usually buttoned closed. The ao dai is a garment that can be worn by both genders, but nowadays is primarily a women’s garment.
Though it has become the definitive national clothing of Vietnam, the ao dai is a relatively modern clothing style in the country’s thousand-year long history, and a hybrid of influences from both the east and the west. Its evolution is marked by both Vietnam’s on-and-off struggle under Chinese colonial rule, its time as part of French Indochina, and even by the “soft power” of American cultural influence.
The ao dai’s Chinese influence first developed in the fifteenth century during the Ming Dynasty, when Chinese troops occupied the country for twenty years. The women of Vietnam, according to the Chinese, were uncivilized because they wore skirts (vay) and halter tops (yem) instead of pants and robes, which was especially scandalous. (All of those exposed calves!) During their occupation, the Ming army enforced a strict assimilation policy, and women were forced to adopt Chinese-style pants that were long enough to hide their feet underneath their skirts. This style grew popular among the elite classes, though peasants still clung to their vay and yem.
After Vietnam gained its independence from China in 1427, Vietnamese rulers, influenced by conservative Confucian thought, enforced dress regulations that banned wearing skirts and halter tops with varying degrees of success. Once the Nguyen family took control of the entire country, Emperor Minh Mang, who ruled from 1820 to 1841, banned women’s skirts entirely, ridiculing them as “bottomless pants.”
And to think halfway across the globe, trousers on women were seen just as scandalous. Like Vietnamese women who wore these “forbidden” skirts for practical reasons—working in rice paddies—the pit brow lasses of Britain were the first in the mid-nineteenth century to adopt trousers to wear while mining, much to the chagrin of their society.
The ao dai pants retain that style today. They are not the same as stereotypical Asian pajama bottoms, but are voluminous silk garments with very wide, loose legs. And gods forbid any woman from wearing a traditional ao dai with her feet showing!
My mother keeps a trove of ao dai in the attic, protected under layers of plastic on a hanging rack. There are brocaded gowns and plain cotton gowns; gowns with hand-painted designs and gowns designed with embroidery. There are ao dai gowns with sequins and ones of silk. On special family occasions, my mother would select one for me and my sister to wear.
These ao dai are not only hers, but also ones owned by her mother and by distant cousins and their mothers too. They have become family heirlooms, and I understand why she’s kept them. Remembering the story she’d tell us about coming to the U.S. in a boat with nothing but the clothes on her back, I wonder if her desire to hold onto things is driven by her need to make up for all the things she had left behind.
During my freshman year of high school, when I get my first boyfriend, I want to give him a sweetheart picture and choose one taken a couple months before of me in a white and green ao dai embroidered with lilies. My mom protests, saying that’s “too personal” and suggests giving him my school headshot instead. Later, when an aunt of mine plans to travel back to Vietnam, my mom takes measurements of my sister and me to get our own ao dai outfits custom made there, “because we were old enough to need our own.”
The outfits came back a month later, made of sheer, silky material. Mine is lavender with a pink undertone. Owning one feels like some sort of rite of passage, as if marking my arrival into womanhood.
The ao dai went through further modifications over the years long after Chinese rule. A precursor to the modern ao dai gown was a type of loose-fitting robe with a stand-up collar that was closed along the right-hand side in a diagonal slash from the neck to the armpit and down the waist. Multiple gowns were also worn during the colder months, layered one upon another. The top buttons were usually left unbuttoned to expose the layers of brightly colored fabric underneath.
By the time the French came in the 1860s, these ao dai were worn by the urban elite. By the 1880s, the French had established the colony of Indochina, and under colonial influence during the following decades of rule, the ao dai changed again. The top portion of the tunic became more tailored to the body, with darts at the chest and a pulled-in waist. This new form required women to start wearing corsets or brasseries beneath their ao dai instead of yem.
At the tail end of French colonial occupation, the ao dai had been modified even further to the modern cut we see today. There had been times when the European influence was very strong, most notably with styles designed by Nguyen Cat Tuong (who is known widely by his French nickname Le Mur), which had puffed sleeves, scalloped hems, lacy collars and buttoned cuffs. Even throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the ao dai form has gone through various stages of experimentation, with influences from other cultures. The “ao dai maxi” had a mandarin collar with Chinese frog buttons up along the center of the gown. In the 1960s, the “ao dai mini,” inspired by American mini skirts, came into vogue; the dress panels fell to the knees instead of the ankles, and the slits went up as high as the lower ribs.
Yet the basic form of the ao dai remains popular today. In Vietnam, it is everyday wear for many female workers and students. For the Vietnamese diaspora community, the ao dai is mostly worn at family and celebratory occasions.
Ethnic clothing has always been stereotyped as being “timeless.” But such clothing is a living commodity. In turn, the ao dai is not a frozen cultural artifact, existing untouched and idealized, but is a piece of clothing that had changed through the centuries, affected by war and imperialism as much as cultural influences and fads. Yet it has survived because of its ability to adapt while still retaining a sense of “Vietnamese identity.”
Technically, clothing is only pieces of cloth we use to dress ourselves. Perhaps that is why people view clothing as something frivolous and fashion only as ephemeral aesthetics. But our stories are woven into the fabrics that sit upon our skins, and these stories tell others what we choose to be.
So when I first became involved in the steampunk community, I wanted to wear something that was important. This wasn’t dressing up to draw attention from who I am, but a chance to take pride in where I came from. At my first steampunk convention, I wore a modified Chinese qipao for the Asian-inspired aesthetic, but it didn’t feel like it was what I wanted.
I have created various steampunk outfits, mostly out of thrift store finds I repurposed and modded The most valuable part of my steampunk wardrobe, though, isn’t any of the jewelry or the vests or even my prop weapon the Peacemaker. They are a pair of ao dai gowns that I have worn beneath the modded belts and vests and corsets.
They are my mother’s.
When I wear an ao dai as a steampunk, I think about it as being more than a costume or a cosplay. My outfits become a representation of myself: Vietnamese and American and steampunk.
Time is treated by steampunks with a Doctor Whovian “wibbly-wobbly” sensibility: the future lies in the past and exists in the present. Steampunk clothes represent how our imagined histories are based on real history, and whatever steampunk fantasy we construct for ourselves can have a basis in who we are and where we fit in the world. When you see me, you can see a story, part fantasy, part reality. This is the story I give to you. When steampunks dress up, they engage in this performance of identity; when you see us, you see the stories we tell each other.
Because sometimes the most interesting way to present your steampunk self is with nothing but the clothes on your back.
During my time in the steampunk community, I’ve continued to play upon the theme of Eastern-Western influences. I love vests and corsets, highlighted with dragon designs and mandarin collars. I wear petticoat skirts and ballgowns out of Chinese brocade and mix frog buttons with brass ones. And the ao dai, another cultural hybrid garment, fits into my own steampunk style.
So when someone asks me how I steampunk, it is more than a method or a fashion preference, but a way I present the complexities of identity. Sure, I’m steampunk, but I am also so much more. And along with my involvement in the community, I’ve adapted my ao dai as well.
But I know it is the ao dai that will remain with me always. I’ve been engaged in one. One day, I will be married in one. And, perhaps on another day years from now, my own child will be prancing in my wedding ao dai, just another little girl dancing in a princess dream.
Ay-leen the Peacemaker runs a blog about multicultural steampunk called Beyond Victoriana. She currently lives and works in New York City. On occasion, she does guest speaking at conventions about steampunk and social issues. You’d probably recognize her as the Little Asian Girl with the Big Gun.