The yếm (breastcloth) is perhaps the most typical item of Vietnamese women’s clothing. A diamond or square-cut piece of cloth placed diagomally on a woman’s chest, with its upper angle cut in a round form or in a V from, it has been worn for centuries by women of all classes.
Traditionally worn under a blouse or overcoat, the yếm is on hand is a symbol of modesty. As one 17th century observer, the Italian priest Cristoforo Borri remarked of Vietnamese woman: “the clothes they wear could be probably the most covert in Southeast Asia”.
On the other hand, great pride and care was taken in the beauty and design of the Yếm. As Vietnam became one of the finest producers of silk in the world, much attention was given to the bodice, which was made in many colors for different occasions and for different social strata.
All around ancient Thang Long city (now Hanoi), fabric weaving from traditional craft villages of Nghi Tàm, Dâu and Thúy Ái developed to exquisite heights. By the 18th Century, Vietnam made some of the finest silk in the world, such as vân tứ quý (silk cloth with woven design of the four seasons), or vân hồng điệp (pink silk brocade).
These beautiful silks could be found in the markets of Thang Long, available to women of all classes. In his 1732 book entitled “Vương Quốc Đàng Ngoài” (The Kingdom of North Vietnam), writer S.Baron noted: “The technique of weaving silk cloth has developed here to such a degree the rich and the poor can all wear silk clothes”
Modest and beautiful, the simple yếm in many ways symbolizes the traditional virtues of Vietnamese women. The 17th century priest Borri was struck by their manner, calling them “broad-minded and carefree, “with” a gentle temperament”.
The traditional yếm can still be found in the countryside, worn by girls in traditional festivals, such the Love Duets Festivals of Bac Ninh. But as times changed, so did fashions.
In the early 20th Century as the modern áo dài (the long split tunic typically worn by Vietnamese women) appeared, it became difficult to wear yếm underneath, and Vietnamese began wearing western brassieres instead.
However, the yếm hasn’t gone away, it’s just changed forms. The traditional yếm has been stylized as a part of the modern áo dài. Instead of a high collar, some áo dài have yếm-like top, with two strings tied together at the nape revealing the bare shoulder.
And modern Vietnamese girls have adopted a stylized and even more revealing yếm to wear with jeans, much like a halter top, with a fully exposed back.
But whatever variations exist, the hidden charm of the yếm worn by Vietnamese women of old remains to heir modern Vietnamese women look as elegant and graceful as ever.