The next woman in the Vietnamese First Lady series blended fashion and power like no other. Madame Nhu was known for her quick, and at times harmful mouth, alongside her stunning beauty. She was a unique political figure of the Vietnam War for challenged anything that got in her way.
The Woman of Many Names
Although she was born Trần Lệ Xuân, Madame Nhu was a woman known under many names. She was also called “Tiger Lady” and “Dragon Lady,” which the latter was based on a racist Asian character from the U.S. cartoon, “Terry and the Pirates.” This name was due to her blunt personality and cutting remarks, but also her glamorous appearance.
Nhu was the de-facto First Lady of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1963, which was the early years of the Vietnam War. She was both a feminist who supported women’s rights, but also a fierce Christian who promoted laws that restricted females. She was protective of her people, but then made scathing statements about Vietnamese Buddhist monks who self-immolated in protest.
The Nhu Life
Nhu was born in 1924 to a wealthy Buddhist family in Vietnam who descended from royalty. Her life consisted of rare privilege during the 1920s and 1930s, where she took French and ballet lessons and was assisted by several servants.
As a teen, she rebelled against her controlling family by refusing an arranged marriage and dropping out of a prestigious school. She married politician and archivist Ngô Đình Nhu in 1943, who was her mother’s friend and fifteen years her senior. In order to marry, the young bride converted to her husband’s Roman Catholicism and changed her name to Madame Nhu, which went against Vietnamese tradition.
Early in the couple’s marriage, Vietnam fell to Communist power. Nhu and her child were captured and held against their will. They faced harsh and restrictive conditions, but she was allowed one coat to wear, which according to Nhu, was “a very fashionable wasp-waisted number from Paris.”
The Nhu Law
In 1955 Nhu’s brother-in-law Ngô Đình Diệm became the first president of the Republic of Vietnam. Since Diệm was unmarried, Nhu became the de-facto first lady. As a public figure, she was not afraid to voice her opinion of American involvement in the Vietnam War or against her critics.
Nhu’s fierce persona often overshadowed the change she initiated in Vietnam. She developed a female militia, and proposed the Family Law in 1958 that banned polygamy, gave women the right to joint property ownership, and made divorce difficult to attain. Although the latter would be seen against women’s rights in Western eyes, divorce at that time in Vietnam stigmatized women and could ruin their future.
However, Nhu’s Roman Catholic views drove her to promote laws that shamed women. She attempted to outlaw padded brassieres, abortion, and called the popular dance “the Twist” as an unhealthy activity.
The Nhu Look
Like many public figures, Madame Nhu had a signature uniform. She wore a modified ao dai (Vietnamese national dress) that was fitted at the bodice with necklines that included boatneck and Mandarin collars. Alike her statements, her clothing was considered controversial for its focus on the female form.
Nhu complimented her look with other 1950s trends, including a beehive bouffant, winged eyeliner, and feminine accents like a purse in snakeskin or pearl jewelry. Apart of why she was named the “Dragon Lady” moniker, was due to her pointed nails, which are referred today as stiletto nails. Her ultra-feminine look only strengthened her fierce persona, which was a rarity for any First Lady during the mid-twentieth century.