The Ao Dai: Wearable Art (That you can do high kicks in)

May 18, 2006

April 26, 2006

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Rarely have I been to an exhibit where the museum guests were wearing the same article of clothing as was on display. (Well, usually i don't go to exhibits where the art is wearable, that's true, too.)

But not so last weekend in San Jose, where I kept taking sneak peaks at the women and girls running around in ao dai (pronounced "ow yie" or "ow zie") –many of which were equally beautiful, if less ornate, than the pieces on show.

I have to say, the ao dai is the ideal outfit. The long tunic is form fitting enough to give you shape but covers up a host of figure faults, and the loose pants underneath mean you can ride bikes, squat, do high kicks, or conquer the world a la Katherine Hepburn, but Asian style.

I'm a skirt girl, not just because my fundamentalist Christian elementary school required dresses everyday. No, because I have such trouble finding pants that fit. and jeans? forget it. But when it's cold (can't wear snowpants under the skirt anymore, like in Kansas) sometimes you just want a little more. That's where the ao dai would be perfect.

However, you won't see me sporting one anytime soon. Why? Because I would feel like it's 1) cultural misappropriation or 2) fetishizing / calling attention to my Asian-ness in my workplace that is almost entirely white (not to mention confusing them with the whole Chinese vs. Vietnamese vs. Japanese thing [a lot of people think i'm japanese even though i'm Chinese American –it's a long story]).

I've been accused of being too literal, and perhaps it's true. I don't have a problem eating Vietnamese food or hanging Lao art on my walls, but I guess clothing is a claim of identity. Am I taking it too seriously to feel that I'd be pretending to be something that I'm not? Or, perhaps worse, "dressing up" as Vietnamese, as if it were a Halloween costume?

There was a white woman and her daughter at the exhibit wearing matching ao dai and I couldn't stop looking at them either, trying to figure out what they were about. Had they lived in Vietnam, did they hang out with the Vietnamese community, did they in fact have a "right" to be wearing one?

And I know, how ridiculous is that? How can you go around judging and drawing lines as to who can wear what? But after seeing so many people running around with chinese character tattoos, people ordering "chai tea," creepy men extolling the virtues of Asian women, you just start to be a little skeezed out by stuff like that. Very scientific analysis, skeezed out.

But I digress. I wanted to tell you that the exhibit, held for the next 3 months at the San Jose Quilt and Textile Museum, is definitely worth a trip. Even better if you stop for some pho on your way (i hear SJ's got the best in the bay area).

I like exhibits of things that are usable, or used… Things that were held in people's hands, absorbed their smells or held their food or ink or babies. And this is that kind of exhibit –you can see how tiny some of the women were, how meticulously their garments were sewn, and the crazy ways they've been adapted –with Indian quiliting techniques, as above, with ruffles and lace in the Victorian era, or with the psychedelic prints of the 60s. it's a small exhibit, but has an impressive range.

They've also got a menu of lectures through June, if you go for that kind of stuff. Find out more by clicking here.

Posted by jennifer at April 26, 2006 10:47 AM

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