The unpretentious áo bà ba is a symbol of normal people living simple lives in rural areas. In fact, this outfit is closely associated with the southern provinces of Vietnam: the clean, functional cut being representative of good-natured folk that are down to earth and have little time (or use) for ceremony.
Traditionally, the outfit includes a loose-fitting shirt and black pants; unlike áo tứ thân, it can be worn by both men and women. The collarless, long-sleeved shirt consists of two parts: the back is a single piece of fabric, while the front is made from two equal parts that are connected by a line of buttons and may have two square pockets at the bottom. Additionally, there is a cut along both sides going up to the waist to make the shirt more comfortable. While there is no set length of the shirt, it’s usually long enough to cover the hips. The loose pants are ankle-length, and come in every colour, as long as it’s black.
History and Development
There are no records as to when and how the áo bà ba became the most popular outfit among the Southerners; however, there are some theories about its origin. While some experts say it first appeared here in the period following the Le Dynasty, others believe that the outfit was a consequence of trading with the Baba people of Penang Island in Malaysia. The latter theory maintains that the exchange of goods between the two regions that took place in the 19th century saw the costume of the Baba people brought to the southern provinces and consequently changed to suit the tastes of Vietnamese people.
In the past, áo bà ba was usually made of practical, easily-dried materials such as cotton. The basic colours used are a clear sign of its strong ties with rural areas. At the time, only basic materials were available to the masses; the people had to use tree essence to dye the fabric. Therefore, the classic áo bà ba came in colours such as brown, black, dark, and light green.
People would wear the outfit literally everywhere: in the fields, on the street, and to community meetings. The outfit was akin to a uniform for those living in the country and they chose the colours depending on their age and the place they would go. Not only farmers wore the áo bà ba, as the moneyed city dwellers often chose it as their everyday costume. The difference was that the latter had their garments made of fine fabrics like silk and brocade.
The major changes to this traditional outfit occurred between the 60’s and 70’s when fabric became easy to import. At that time the áo bà ba was modernised to be more suitable for the tropical climate and to match contemporary aesthetics. The conventions that surfaced during that time remain largely unchanged: to this day, elderly women tend to choose dark colours such as black, purple, dark blue, and green – while the young ones prefer bright colours like orange, pink, and azure. In the Mekong Delta, black and brown ao bà ba are worn mostly by both male and female farmers. For special occasions, older women often choose to wear white áo bà ba instead of the traditional áo dài since the latter is less comfortable.
The accessories that traditionally complemented the áo bà ba are a bandana and a leaf hat. People would the bandana on their heads or draped over their shoulders to protect them from the heat while doing farm work.
Regardless of which origin theory is true, the áo bà ba has a long history in the Southern provinces: the outfit was a constant companion of the people in their struggle through two painful wars. Many poets and artists found inspiration in the images of women in áo bà ba carrying guns and bombs to fight against the French and the Americans. As a result, numerous anti-war songs and poems at that time focused on the Southern women clad in black or brown outfits that concealed their burning patriotism.
Following the wars that ravaged Vietnam, the áo bà ba became a status symbol… or, rather, a sign of its lack thereof. As a generation of nouveau riche sprung into being, wearing the outfit in public was tantamount to admitting one’s lack of refinement. However, in the past few decades such sentiments have been largely abandoned and the outfit now says more about the wearer’s preference for comfort rather than her social class.
In modern times, the áo bà ba has undergone changes that have made it more flattering to the female body. Compared to the traditional cut, the waist is now tighter, the shirt longer, and the two front pockets have been removed to make it more comfortable. The pants now come in a variety of colourful fabrics and patterns, and accessories are now commonly added to the outfit, helping the wearer stand out in the crowd. However, the basic idea of simplicity has been preserved and the áo bà ba is still very much a functional everyday outfit that is easy to spot both in the sleepy countryside and bustling metropolis of Saigon. Thankfully, some good things never change.
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