Characterised by its high neck, soft round shoulders and graceful sleeves, the Áo Dài is not just a traditional Vietnamese dress, but also an embodiment of the nation’s spirit and pride. Through his project 365 Days with Áo Dài, photographer Chiron Duong casts family and friends as models, recreating their authentic experience of the dress and femininity. His mesmerising images of fluidity, elegance and colour allow the Áo Dài’s traditional aesthetics to emerge to the surface, while also providing the dress with a contemporary twist.
Our readers might not be entirely familiar with Áo Dài – can you briefly summarise what it is and what inspired you to use it as a subject for your project?
I am honoured to talk with you and share about Vietnam's traditional dress – as well as my original culture.
Áo Dài is a special traditional dress of my country –Viet Nam but Vietnamese Áo Dài is not only a kind of national dress but also contains a rich history, cultural traditions, aesthetic conceptions, national consciousness and spirit of the Vietnamese people. Through many changes in society and times, it has always been a beautiful symbol of the national culture, and the pride of Vietnamese people. The soft, gentle and discreet beauty of the Vietnamese Áo Dài is shown by its high neck, soft round shoulders and two graceful sleeves. One day, I was asked by many foreign friends about it, but, unfortunately, I hadn't taken many pictures of the Áo Dài. So I decided to start a project (365 Days with Áo Dài) to shoot traditional Áo Dài based on unique traditional and modern values.
In the past few decades, many designers have innovated it. Among them, there were many designs that became a disaster and destroyed the images of Áo Dài in my eyes. At the same time, it has fallen into cultural appropriation. For me, it is both an adjective and a noun. The Áo Dài just evokes rustic, simple, seductive Vietnamese women and contains many memories.
I read you have a background in architecture. How does it influence your photography?
My major is Landscape Architecture and Planning. I am more interested in social issues, community, and the connection between the natural and human environment, rural and urban. That is also the reason why I have a love for photography along with my major. I started the first series of photos in the genre of conceptual art, fine art photography and documentary.
I have had time to shoot architecture (architectural photography) to supplement composition for fashion photography. And, of course, photography also affects my architectural design from an artistic perspective. For architecture, function and technique are the core, and art is added later. I think: “Right first, beautiful later.” Once I have properly designed the space, I apply the perspective from photography to the artistic element of the architecture. Those are the foreground, middle, and background layers and how viewers feel when standing in front of that scene. I apply the Landscape Architecture design element in photography to the way I create the feeling that I want to convey to people through my works.
Could you explain to us why you decided to make this a 365-day project?
When I see my grandmother and mother in Áo Dài on important occasions, I get very emotional, at that time they will properly prepare and stand in front of the mirror to brush their hair. All the memories from my childhood replayed in my mind. It has both a positive and a negative that these women have experienced events and happiness throughout their lives. It is impossible to describe the beauty of the Áo Dài as it flutters in the wind. So I showed it off as a tribute to this outfit with a 365-day project and wanted it to repeat every day so everyone could see them.
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I found your choice to use friends as models quite interesting and I would be curious to know why you chose not to hire professional models instead. Did any difficulties arise?
The Áo Dài is an outfit that Vietnamese women wear, so they all have fond memories of it, more or less. I wanted it to be an experience that was both objective and subjective. So I invited my ordinary friends (including my grandmother and mother) to appear wearing it. In this project, each photography concept is like a little plot, I asked them to take the plot and make it their way and I didn't interfere. So all of their authentic expressions are based on the situation they show up in. After all, I'm always amazed at what they do. They recount my memories according to their experiences and memories. This is really unique and meaningful.
You have mentioned that most of your models had never posed in front of a camera before – how do you make them feel comfortable, while still achieving the result you set your mind to?
Most of them have never appeared in front of the camera as a model. However, they grew up in the traditional and modern culture of Vietnam. The movements and poses are their experiences and, sometimes the dances they learned as children or simply the childhood setting with the folk games they experienced. as a child in a rural or urban area.
In what way does your photography combine the traditional aspects of Áo Dài, Vietnamese culture and modern aesthetics?
I love traditions, but I've always wanted to see them from a time-lapse perspective. Sometimes I still show traditional things with modern props and modern photography techniques as a bridge between the past and the modern.
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I was amazed by the incorporation of dance and movement in your work; hardly any of your photographs are static, most of them exist in a fluid state of motion. What does this element symbolise to you? Does it have any particular cultural significance that relates to Áo Dài?
I have always been obsessed and fascinated by the movement of Áo Dài. When you witness women in them crossing the streets, they are incredibly graceful and soft. Those moments seem to stand still. So I use movement to better describe the flexibility of Áo Dài. However, my style will mostly use photography techniques to convey emotions in my works rather than to show visual effects. I try to express the adjectives and nouns that come to mind when I tell the story of Áo Dài: soft, soaring, brilliant, poetic, graceful, emotional, stalemate, happy, hopeful, etc. So the element of motion almost helps me express the general idea of ​​this project.
You often make use of flowers and other natural elements in your work – does the natural world inspire your photography and creative process in any way? Does it have a broader connection to Vietnamese culture and folklore?
As a landscape architect, I have a lot of exposure to plants and I love them. Their appearance softens and evokes the dreaminess in photos and is on my mind when talking about Áo Dài. In fact, chrysanthemums appear the most because it is closely associated with the religious culture of Vietnam but in a simpler way than Japanese culture. Other flowers are also used as metaphors for some feudal periods in Vietnam, when the status of women was judged by society and it was difficult for them to have self-control in their lives. Another aspect of my use of flowers is to express hope and exultation. Depending on the colour of the photos you can perceive these messages.
On day 239, alongside the caption that usually accompanies your photographs from the Áo Dài project, you have also included the English translation of a few Vietnamese verses painted on your model’s face. Where do the lines come from? What connection does this piece of writing have with your project, and why did you decide to paint it on your model?
Those are verses about my homeland and history that I learned from a young age, about its golden fields and children herding buffaloes in the sound of the flute. I think it would be great if a Vietnamese living abroad (like international students) could suddenly see Vietnamese characters and especially a poem from each generation's heart. That would be a huge sympathy.
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As you have mentioned before, the Áo Dài often falls into cultural appropriation. Do you feel comfortable expanding on this idea? Do you have any particular instances in mind?
I remember there were times when some foreign designers created a collection of Áo Dài and considered it their national costume. This is a form of cultural appropriation. I am always open to creativity. In fact, it has a history of structural changes to suit each period and its applicability in society. However, the most interesting thing is that it still retains its properties: soft, gentle, affectionate, elegant. Currently, there are many young designers who do not understand the essence of Áo Dài and create it with different styles, this loses the essence of it even if they still call it Áo Dài. A traditional costume like this has a rich history and culture. When I mention Áo Dài, I will include both nouns and adjectives to complete the image of it. Therefore, all creations need to ensure that the emotions evoke the properties of Áo Dài and are respectful of the national symbol.
Is your work equally as famous in Vietnam? How is it received there?
In fact, people rarely use Instagram in Vietnam but instead use Facebook. So, most people only know about this project through the press shared on Facebook. To ensure continuity for this project for 365 days I chose the Instagram platform.
Coming up with a photograph every day for a year sounds like quite the task – does it leave any time to work on other side projects? If so, what do you have in store?
To start this project, I had been preparing for a long time to gain experience and economy. During this project, I received less side work as well as reduced time for other projects. Sometimes for several months in a row, I've had to focus completely on it. After this project, I want to find a publisher and make a photo book to celebrate and introduce to everyone.
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