Saturday, April 26, 2008

Calling All Dress Detectives: Vintage Vietnamese Dress? Or What is It?

Since I had to occupy myself with things other than sewing today (too much going on to start a new project today- hubs on the go, house showings, yadda, yadda), I thought I'd talk about this very unique dress.

I often poke around at my local Goodwill. Last week I wandered on over when I vacated my house for a showing. In the dress section, I came across this dress. I got kind of excited about it. At first glance, the orange and brown pattern jumped out as 60's or 70's and oh so groovy. When I took the hanger off of the rack for a closer inspection, I saw that on many levels it was not "regular groovy" on many.

First, was the fabric. It's a sheer organza with that bit of sparkle. Could it be silk organza? Second, is the design. It has an oriental styling with it's Mandarin top and collar. The waist is nipped and the full length skirt flares with two tall slits a the sides. It looks designed to be worn over something else.

Most intriguing of all, however, are the label, the size and the workmanship. The garment looks handmade. It's actually quite simply made. The front is all one piece, as is the back. The sleeves are cut in, with a longer, lower sleeve sewn in at the biceps. There are vertical waist darts at the front and back and then horizontal bust darts at the front. You can see pen markings on the inside at the darts (it's transparent after all). The stitching is uneven and wonky all over.

The label says (and I can't recreate some of the letters/punctuation) "NHA MAY - Van Cri - 98 TO H THANH SAIGON". Saigon? My brain raced when I read it. Didn't Saigon stop being called Saigon in 1975 when it became Ho Chi Minh City after the fall to the North Vietnamese? What was this dress?

I held it and pondered. The organza felt like it could be silk. Or was I imagining that now because of the label? The price tag was $4.99, so I had to try it on.

To my disappointment, it was small. I'm not talking a-little-bit-snug small. I mean so incredibly small the arm of the dress didn't get past the bicep on my arm. I know I'm not supermodel thin (who is, besides supermodels?). But this was nano small.

Even so, I couldn't walk away from it. By now, I was so intrigued by this dress I had to have it. Did this dress really come from Saigon pre-1975? It would explain the groovy orange and brown colors. Who made it? Is the label's NHA MAY a Vietnamese seamstress or a company? How were clothes manufactured in Vietnam back then? Would it explain the basic construction? Were clothes like this manufactured as a response to military troops to purchase as gifts for loved ones back home? Did a soldier buy it for a loved one back home or perhaps, did a soldier come back with a wife? A soldier might not know about size, hence explaining why it's so small. It might also explain why it has virtually no wear and tear ( was too small for dear Betty). On a completely different spin, could some girl have made it in home ec back in the 70's, and stuck a label on, stolen from some unused garment knocking around the house? The truth is, I simply don't know.

The dress opened so many exciting questions that I HAD to have it. My father was a Vietnam Veteran and I wish I could show it to him somehow to see what he thought.

But since that's not possible, I post the dress here for all of you to see. It's so small, it doesn't fit Doris so I had to take pictures of it on a hanger (I measured the dress' waist - it's 24"!) I hope it's as interesting and exciting for you as it is for me. I also hope that we can all be Dress Detectives and maybe find some answers to this lovely, and most likely, vintage dress. What do you think?


Sarah said...

Ive done some research for you.

1) Saigon is still the popular name for Ho Chi Minh City and even the locals call it Saigon.

2) Service Tailors ("Nah May") are all over Saigon and offer custom tailored clothing for dirt cheap prices.

3) "Thanh" appears to be a designation for Road or Street, such as in Le Thanh Ton which is the Oxford Street of Saigon wares and Service Tailors.

So Im guessing the label reads:

Service Tailor
Văn Crí (the name of the tailor)
98 To H Thanh, Siagon (address)

Since service tailors are cheap and quick, tourists often take advantage and order a custom tailored piece while visiting. Its possible the person who ordered the piece was Vietnamese and came to the US as an Immigrant or to bring something for a family member / friend, or that it was a tourist who bought something for himself or a friend/family member and dint know the size or was slight of frame (if ordering for herself). Could it be a child or teenager's dress?

Sorry to at perhaps dampen the romantic dream of a soldier's gift for his wife! Heck, for all we know it totally could have been! The label manufacture looks pretty new, but I'm just an amateur researcher, so its all open for debate!

Hope my Google Fu was helpful!

Sarah said...

On seeing the first photo again (where you're almost completely hidden by the dress), I take back my comment about the person perhaps being Vietnamese (I have never seen a Vietnamese woman that tall!) and also the question about it being a child or teenager's dress (unless the child/teenager was that of Yao Ming or Sun Ming Ming - Google and you'll see what I mean).

Anyway, its a gorgeous dress. You could paint a wall in your new sewing room a nice dark color to match the flowers (maybe use gold leaf to stencil a leaf pattern randomly on the wall?) then hang the dress on the wall.

When Ladies Dressed said...

Hi Sarah!!!!! You are the research guru! I love you!!! That is really interesting info; I couldn't find anything, but undoubtedly I'm not as patient as you are! Incidently, that is my 10 year old SON holding up the dress for the photo... so the dress was made for somebody vertically challenged. Thanks so much. I do like your idea of displaying it at the new house, since it can't be worn!

Bunny said...

My husband served in that era in the Navy. Here's another possibility: DH had clothes made for me,silk ones. that Tailors from somewhere in Southeast would follow the fleet. They would take orders in maybe Norway, then meet the fleet in England, delivering the goods. They had similar labels and what he had made for me was gorgeous. JMHO: given the size of this garment, I would say it belonged to a Viet Namese or Cambodian woman. There was a large such population where I used to live and these woman are two things: very small and very beautiful. Could it have belonged to a war bride? Hmmmm,,,,,

When Ladies Dressed said...

bunny, thanks so much for the information based on your experiences. I have to admit, I was thinking something along those lines too. I know many of our men who served came home with brides. Do you still have the clothes that were made for you? I'd love to see pictures if you do! P.S. - I really enjoy reading your stories on your blog!

Sarah said...

One more thing - this piece is called an Ao Dai. Its the national dress of Vietnam. If you want to do more research, thats a good place to start. The bit you have is the top piece. Pants are always worn with it (note the slits to the waist) and as this is quite sheer I wouldnt be surprised if it originally had a camisole underneath to match the pants.

I couldn't find any more definitive info on the label date.

As it was your SON behind the Ao Dai, I imagine this was indeed made for a Vietnamese woman or girl, considering the slight frame. According to the historical info I read on Ao Dais, they are almost always custom made to measure due to the fitted nature of the clothing. Although they can be made to fit a "size", this one looks tailored. Perhaps it came over with an immigrant.

Here's another example I found that resembles yours in shape, make and sheen:

Sarah said...

Sorry - better link:

Bunny said...

I do have one garment. Its a beautiful blue embroidered silk affair that has held up remarkably well all these years. You have given me a great idea for a post. I am glad you enjoy my stories. Its the Irish coming out of me!LOL! There are loads of them. And thanks for stopping by, too!

When Ladies Dressed said...

Sarah, thanks so much!!! Your research is so interesting! I did guess that it was meant to be worn over something, I just wasn't sure what!

Bunny, I'm heading over to your blog to see what you've posted!

Suoi Trong said...


Anonymous said...

This is called an Ao Dai dress.