Streets of San Jose Spring to Life With a Vietnamese Fashion Statement

From the Ao Dai Festival in 2016. The San Jose celebration pays tribute to a bit of Vietnamese Culture everybody can get behind, regardless of generation or politics. (Photo: Courtesy of Christine Jade)

More than one thousand people are expected to show up in downtown San Jose Saturday to celebrate the fifth Ao Dai Festival.

The ao dai (say "ow-zai") is a traditional Vietnamese outfit — a long tunic worn over pants, worn by women and men. Starting in the 18th century in the south of Vietnam, the ao dai has grown from a regional nod to tradition to something much bigger: a national symbol of Vietnamese beauty.

In recent years in San Jose, the ao dai has become something else yet again: a cultural point of pride most Vietnamese-Americans  can get behind. 

"It is neutral. It is something that everyone agrees is beautiful," says Trami Nguyen Cron, on the Ao Dai Festival’s steering committee. The author and founder of Chopsticks Alley, a nonprofit featuring Southeast Asian Artists in the Bay Area, adds, "Let's come together to celebrate being one, being Vietnamese!"

Models on the catwalk display fresh designs from Tuan Tran at the 2016 Ao Dai Festival in San Jose.
Models on the catwalk display fresh designs from Tuan Tran at the 2016 Ao Dai Festival in San Jose. (Photo: Courtesy of Christine Jade)

For so many who fled Vietnam as adults, modern art and music from the home country is an unpleasant reminder of the Communist regime.

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Younger generations may quietly enjoy the cultural dynamism coming from Vietnam today. Publicly? Not so much. But as the years pass, young Vietnamese-Americans are eager to take the reins and lead local cultural celebrations.  

Or launch them. The San Jose festival was developed by a local attorney, Jenny Do, a refugee who came to the US in 1975. Cron explains, "They want to be connected to their culture, and this is an easy way for them to do it."

This year's theme in San Jose is a "Confluence of Rivers," and festival will fill a whole day with fashion, music and dance, starting with a weaving project at 11 a.m. in the Circle of Palms outside the San Jose Museum of Art. At 4 p.m., there’s a fashion walk - slash - march from City Hall to the Circle of Palms. At 5 p.m., there’s traditional music and dance, and finally at 5:30 p.m., a cocktail reception and dinner inside the Fairmont Hotel.

The Ao Dai Festival also features modern renditions of traditional music.
The Ao Dai Festival also features modern renditions of traditional music. (Photo: Courtesy of Christine Jade)

From demure to sexy

Fashion designers have been playing with the ao dai since the 1930s, when French-trained artists started taking the costume in a more provocative direction. What was loose became more tight-fitting. Slits up the side sometimes go high enough to show a little skin.

A new generation of fashion designers in the Bay Area and beyond continues to play with the classic form. Cron says, "We have local designers from San Jose, from San Francisco, and also famous designers from Vietnam."

As the organizers hoped, every generation wants in on the celebration, wants to strut their stuff and celebrate. Pride, fashion, gorgeousness: what's not to like? 

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