An Ao Dai and A Jumpsuit: The Fashions of Dang Tuyet Mai




The third and final subject of Vietnamese First Ladies fashion, Đặng Tuyết Mai was not the wife of a Vietnamese president, but that of a Prime Minister, and later, Vice President. A stylish figure often photographed during the Vietnam War, Mai’s clothing choices mirrored the style of another political wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Both chose clean lines in stylish late 1960s and early 1970s silhouettes that complimented their youthful, but confident, beauty.

Similar to Jacqueline’s departure from politics after the death of her husband, American President John F. Kennedy, Đặng Tuyết Mai ended her role after the Fall of Saigon in 1975 by leaving her home country for the United States. Although she divorced her husband and moved back to Vietnam years later, both she and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis were women who lived under the history of their respective spouses and by their own accord, fashion sense.

Early Life

Đặng Tuyết Mai’s story often begins with her career as a young airline stewardess turned politician wife, but her life in Vietnam started much earlier. She was born in 1942 to an academic family in Bac Ninh, and later, Hanoi. In the 1950s, she became one of the first air hostesses of Air Vietnam Airlines. A stewardess wore an outfit that honored Vietnam’s heritage with a reference to class, by way of an Ao Dai, matching cap, and high heels.

In 1964, she married then Vietnam Air Force Chief of Staff Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, a man known for his penchant for flash. In 1965, the couple was photographed together wearing military jumpsuits, which was a sign of solidarity with military troops as Prime Minister and wife. Even wearing the same outfit as her husband, Đặng Tuyết Mai wore her jumpsuit with a stylish flair by way of a chin-length bob, oversized-square eyeglasses, and a leather handbag.

Fashion Sense




During her time as the Prime Minister’s wife, Đặng Tuyết Mai was photographed wearing both Western and Vietnamese fashions to events. When in Western attire, she chose elegant eveningwear ensembles, like cap sleeved ball gowns accented with a hand fan or a sleeveless dress with panels over black trousers. For daywear, she was photographed wearing sophisticated French ensembles that embraced texture and color.

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Image via Life by way of Elle Vietnam

She also wore Aio Dais, which connected her sense of style to national pride. Her ensembles included a beige, pastel floral silk gown and a pink and white piece with a strand of pearls. No matter her dress origin, she always chose ladylike accessories like pearls and a pocketbook. Her hair was styled in some sweeping style, whether in a bob or bouffant style, and she lined her eyes in thick, pointed eyeliner with rose petal lipstick.

Mai’s style changed years later with a more expensive and daring flair. She showed more skin in tight fitting dresses, displayed brightly colored jewels, and kept her penchant for a well-coiffed face and hair. Before her death in 2016, she was photographed looking ageless in a black bikini and gold accessories.

Vietnam today is known for their growing textile industry, but there’s a fascinating history of style influencers that should not be forgotten. For more on Vietnamese fashion, visit these articles of Madame Nhu and Nam Phuong.

In Good Shape: The Work of Roberto Capucci (Part One)




It’s hard for a fashion designer to get the fame or recognition when you have peers like Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. But for Italian fashion designer Roberto Capucci, recognition plays a minor role to creating sculptural textile art for over sixty plus years.

The Boy Wonder of Couture

Capucci’s design career began in 1950, only twenty years after his 1930 birth in Rome. According to Roberto Capucci: Art into Fashion (2011), his first client was Marcella de Marchis Rossellini, the then wife of Italian film director Roberto Rossellini. From the indication of this famous clientele, it’s no surprise that the young designer gained the attention of Italian fashion promoter Giovanni Battista Giorgini, the man who organized Italy’s first “high fashion” show. Capucci was granted the chance to present a collection for American buyers, which was a part of a larger fashion show that featured more seasoned designers.

As Capucci’s work progressed in the 1950s, it amazed the fashion press. His work was a combination of feminine, “New Look” ball gowns and separates with geographic elements. The New York Times called him the “Boy Wonder of Couture” in 1951, and later in 1952 wrote, “ 21-year-old vest-pocket genius, steals the spotlight from his elders today as the fourth Italian high fashion show opens in Florence.” A year after his debut, the designer was featured for the first time in the September issue of Vogue. His clothing drew the attention of not only those in fashion, but also from style icons like Gloria Swanson and Marilyn Monroe.

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Image: Claudia Primangeli/L.e.C. Service via Philadelphia Museum of Art

However, he often cited nature as his muse than Hollywood stars. His most famous example is the 1956 Nove gonne (Nine dresses) gown. This dress consists of nine skirts cut to look like concentric rings that are formed when a pebble skips across water. The effect was created by tiers that are high in the front and long in the back. The red silk taffeta dress is balanced with a square neckline and knee-length sheath with a red matching belt at the waist. This gown made such an impact that it was featured in an American advertisement for General Motors.

From Paris to Rome

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Image: Stella Kimbrough via TheArtBlog.org

Although Capucci’s reviews were glowing, the designer decided to move his business to Paris in 1962. His first collection Linea Pura, was according to Philadelphia Museum of Art, full of color with clean silhouettes. Capucci’s aesthetic began to embrace more unconventional materials and shapes, as seen with his glow in the dark beaded gowns. These gowns embraced the boxy, tubular styles of 1965, but when in the dark, glowed through ornate beading.

Capucci found the fashion industry as a hinder to his creativity, due to the pressing need to meet the market’s needs. By 1968 he returned to Rome, where he would find the opportunity to turn his work into art.

In the next post on Roberto Capucci, his transition from high fashion to high art will be discussed.

The Nhu Look: The Fashions of Madame Nhu




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.

Historical Fashion Writing: Syria Through The Vogue Lens

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“Match Me Such Marvel” American Vogue (December 1, 1965). Photographed by Henry Clarke. Copyright Condé Nast Publications.

Fashion journalism during times of war can reveal more than just pretty outfits. Take for example the photojournalism of Lee Miller during World War II. Serving as a war correspondent for British Vogue, the former model’s work blended the horrors of Nazi-ruled Europe with reporting on women’s lives. She even had the chance to bath in Hitler’s bathtub, which resulted into one of her most iconic photographs.

In more recent times, the Syrian Civil War has become a widely discussed topic in the fashion industry, ranging from where to donate to the decline of the country’s iconic textile industry. American Vogue even had a blunder of an article that praised Asthma al-Assad as “glamorous, young, and very chic–the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.”

Syria Through The Vreeland Lens

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“Match Me Such Marvel” American Vogue (December 1, 1965). Photographed by Henry Clarke. Copyright Condé Nast Publications.

Although reporting on the Syrian Civil War is now common, there have been two significant moments in Vogue’s history where the publication blended Western fashion with Syrian architecture, art, and ways of life. The first occurred during the reign of Diana Vreeland, who as American Vogue’s editor-in-chief from 1962 to 1971 sent her staff to shoot editorials overseas. “You’d take a couple of models, the photographer Henry Clarke, his English assistant Nelson and a hairdresser (usually Olivier a French coiffeur from Alexandre in Paris) and off we went for say three to four weeks to Syria and Jordan,” explained Paris editor of American Vogue Susan Train of the 1965 excursions.

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“Match Me Such Marvel” American Vogue (December 1, 1965). Photographed by Henry Clarke. Copyright Condé Nast Publications.

Models Brigitte Bauer and Editha Dussler were assigned to pose in front of Roman columns in Palmyra wearing bright white dresses with angular cutouts and sweeping necklines with three-dimensional hairstyles in various conical shapes sitting atop their heads. They were adorned with over-sized earrings, rings, and cuffs, who appeared like suntanned goddesses cutting a figure in a Roman scene. Fifty years later, ISIS bombings have caused some of the ruins to collapse.

Following the Road 

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“The Road To Damascus” Vogue UK (May 2009). Photographed by Tom Craig. Copyright Condé Nast Publications.

Vogue UK revisited Syria in a May 2009 editorial starring supermodel Stella Tennant titled, “The Road to Damascus.” The editorial featured Tennant in gleaming suits and dresses while posing with locals near cultural icons like the Umayyad Mosque. The stunning editorial was shot two years before the start of the country’s civil war, and when compared to the photographs of the country now, displays how quick it all has changed.

For more information on how to help the people of Aleppo, visit Doctors Without Borders and The White Helmets.

Nam Phuong, The Woman Who Wore Silver Trousers To Meet The Pope

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Image via Manhai (Flickr)

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 

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Image via Manhai (Flickr)

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 

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Image via Manhai (Flickr)

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

 

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Image via Manhai (Flickr)

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.

 

Sources

  1. “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.
  2. “Wedding and Thanks”, Time, 2 April 1934.
  3. “Nam Phuong, Wife of Ex-Annam Ruler”, The New York Times, 17 September 1963.