Chronicling the personal style of First Ladies has become common news fodder as of late. Readers from The New York Times to Cosmopolitan can page through articles discussing the public embracement of Michelle Obama’s style, the tailored looks of Canadian Prime Minister’s wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, or the refusal of service by fashion designers to the soon-to-be American First Lady, Melania Trump.
There has been a long history of documenting the fashions of First Ladies. An example can be seen with the country of Vietnam. Three Vietnamese First Ladies came from diverse backgrounds with different tastes in fashion. These three women held their role as a wife of a political figurehead either before, during, or after the Vietnam War who all used fashion to make a statement. Each will be discussed in a three-part series.
The first post will discuss the life and fashion influence of Nam Phương, the last empress of Vietnam.
From a French Convent to An Empire
Marie-Thérèse Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan was born in the French colony Cochinchina, which is located in a southern portion of modern day Vietnam. Lan grew up in a wealthy Roman Catholic family and was educated overseas in France (1). In 1934, she married Emperor Bảo Đai after ending her schooling in a French convent. According to the 1934 The New York Times article “Will Renounce Faith To Wed An Emperor,” this union required her to renounce her faith for her husband’s Buddhism. This pleased Vietnam’s general public, but was at the dismay of the Vatican. The marriage also required her to change her name to Nam Phương, which translates to “Direction of South.”
During the four days of the marriage ceremony, Phương was described by Time Magazine (2) in, “…A great brocaded Annamite gown, she stepped into an automobile and was driven to the Emperor’s Palace, followed by the Imperial princesses and the blue-turbaned wives of the mandarins…On the fourth day a battalion of mandarins led in musicians and the bearers of the royal insignia. The new Queen, her hair elaborately wound about a tiara encrusted with precious stones…”
Leaving the Emperor
When looking at her life, it appears Phoung may have had a strained marriage with her husband. What are typical marital problems may have been complicated with his multiple marriages or his political alliance with the Japanese during World War II. By 1947, the Communist takeover of Vietnam caused Phương to take her children to a family home in France that was bought by her maternal grandmother. Phương then separated from her husband and continued to live in France until she passed away in 1963 (3).
The Empress Goes to Europe
Aside from her role as wife to the last Emperor of Vietnam, Nam Phương was a fashion influencer who wore both traditional Vietnamese clothing and Western wear. During her first trip to Europe in 1939, the Empress’ outfits in Paris were noted by The New York Times in the 1939 article, “By Wireless From Paris.” The article explains how her apparel inspired others by stating, “Already some élégantes are adopting trousers and embroidered tunics for evenings; pagoda silhouettes, revers or sleeve forms are also in evidence.”
In the “Footnotes” of the July 23, 1939 edition of The New York Times, Phương was noted for breaking tradition when meeting Pope Pius XII at the Vatican. She wore a “gold, dragon-embroidered tunic, red scarf and gold hat” with a pair of silver trousers, instead of the all-black, conservative gown and veil.
Orientalism in Fashion
During the time Nam Phương visited Europe, fashion was embracing “exotic” or “orientalist” designs. Orientalism in design and fashion traces to an Eastern idealization created through the West when trade between the two hemispheres introduced silk textiles and new styles of clothing like kimonos and shawls. This interest in Eastern aesthetics was not based in understanding the cultures of Japan, Algeria, or China, rather was created around a fabrication imagined by the West.
Popular trends in the 1930s included silk embroidered kimonos that inspired highly ornate coats, capes, high-neck keyhole gowns and sleepwear that was considered a part of a stylish wardrobe. Phương’s style moments noted by The New York Times highlights the fantasy ideal of Orientalism, but also gives credit to an Asian woman, a demographic that was rarely discussed in fashion publications.
The Life of Nam Phương
Phương was an educated woman who is still remembered for her beauty and fashion sense, but she was also a woman who challenged religious conventions and used her wealth to escape an unhappy marriage. Politics aside, Nam Phương was one fascinating, and beautifully dressed, woman.
- “Annam Ruler to Wed Commoner 20 March; Daughter of Wealthy Cochin-China Family Will Be Bride of Europeanized Emperor”, The New York Times, 9 March 1934, page 21.
- “Wedding and Thanks”, Time, 2 April 1934.
- “Nam Phuong, Wife of Ex-Annam Ruler”, The New York Times, 17 September 1963.