Being an integral element of four-part dress, Yếm is the most popular bra worn by Vietnamese women in the past. One finds in its manufacture a silk or cotton fabric square, the ends of which are fixed by strings tied behind the back and at the neck level. This is intended to cover and support the chest for leaving naked the rest of the body’s upper part. Yếm causes not only lure of seduction but also pleasant freshness during summer days.
However in winter, it becomes a kind of the underwear to which is added the four-part dress, thus allowing Vietnamese women to protect themselves against the cold.
In the Vietnamese tradition, the wasp waist is one of the distinctive traits of female beauty. That is perhaps why the birth of this bra is related to this design with the aim of highlighting the women’s line and showing the wasp segmented body by the association of « halter-neck » and tie on the back of this undershirt (camisole in French).
It was worn by all sections of the population without exception. But the notion of color differentiates between the categories of people wearing it. The brown colour is intended for farmers while educated girls prefer the harmonious, elegant and discrete colors. For the elderly, the dark remains the most widely used. Despite this observation, it is possible to see Yếm with eccentric colours.
One does not known its origin but Yếm was appeared for the first time in the 11th century under the Lý dynasty. It underwent many changes over time before being again recently an glamourous fashion article, competitor of « Áo dài ». In old days, it was accompanied by wearing a skirt and a turban cloth (black or brown) or a scarf ending with a « Crow beak » at the front top. (khăn vuôn mõ quạ). It is only during the reign of Minh Mạng emperor that the black pants was imposed instead of the skirt.
Yếm is an inexhaustible source for Vietnamese poets among which is famous Hồ Xuân Hương. She has had the opportunity to describe not only the romantic and glamourous image of this Vietnamese undershirt but also the innocence of a young girl living in a society ruled by Confucian immutable ethic, in her poem entitled « the girl asleep in the daytime » (Thiếu nữ ngủ ngày).
Mùa hè hây hẩy gió nồm đông
Thiếu nữ nằm chơi quá giấc nồng
Lược trúc lỏng cài trên mái tóc
Yếm đào trễ xuống dưới nương long
Ðôi gò Bông đảo sương còn ngậm
Môt lạch đào nguyên suối chưa thông
Quân tử dùng dằng đi chẳng dứt
Ði thì cũng dở ở không xong.
Summer breeze is sporadically blowing,
Lying down the young girl slides into sleeping.
Her bamboo comb loosely attached to her hair,
Her pink bra below her waist dropped down fair.
On these two Elysian mounds, the nectar is still remaining,
In that one Fairy rivulet, the current seems to stop flowing.
At such a view, the gentleman hesitated,
Odd to leave, yet inconvenient if he stayed.
Yếm is mentioned so many times in popular poems. It reflects the strength and intensity of the love through these two following verses:
Trời mưa trời gió kìn kìn.
Đắp đôi dải yếm hơn nghìn chăn bông.
It’s raining and it made the wind with intensity.
To be covered with a pair of Yếm better than to get thousand duvets
It is difficult to leave the person we fell in love unless we have become this undershirt to retain her. That is what we have in the two following verses:
Kiếp sau đừng hóa ra người
Hóa ra dải yếm buộc người tình nhân.
In the future life, one should not be born a man
But it is necessary to be transformed into undershirt to retain the lover.