ÁO BA 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.
ao ba ba

Beauty in simplicity

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.

Cultural Significance
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

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.

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