Ao Tu Than, otherwise known as the “four-part dress” – not to be confused with the similar Áo ngũ thân – is one of Vietnam’s true traditional textile treasures. Despite the great popularity of the historically more recent Ao Dai, Ao Tu Than is a true symbol of Vietnamese culture, especially the northern Vietnamese woman. With a history that spans several centuries long, it has endured through the ages and remains a modest reminder of the evolution of Vietnamese fashion and culture.
History and origins
The Ao Tu Than can be traced all the way back to the 12th century. Emerging primarily in the North, the attire is thought to have been inspired by Chinese fashion (due to the north’s close proximity to China), possibly the Chinese Hanfu.
The outfit was a fashion norm for centuries in the north, worn by women when they were out of the house, even when working in the fields. It was worn both as day-to-day garment and at special occasions such as weddings or festivals. Depending on how it was made and how it looked, the dress was also a status indicator in Vietnamese society.
As Vietnam developed through the years, extending more to the south, the outfit too changed in character, evolving into its “five-part” form, the áo ngũ thân. In time, the outfit became identified solely with the northern Vietnamese women, particularly the commoner folk.
Keeping it classy
Ao Tu Than generally translates into “dress with four flaps” or “four-part dress.” As such, despite the fact that the original ancient Ao Tu Than dresses came in many styles and designs, you’ll probably recognize it by its four typical characteristics:
- An outer tunic, open at the front, flows freely almost to floor length; it divides into two flaps at the front, splitting at the waist; at the front the two separate flaps hang loosely, while at the back there are another two flaps which are stitched together.
- A long skirt the wearer puts on under the tunic.
- Under the skirt, the Yem (an ancient female undergarment, waist length, diamond-shaped, coming in various plain colors of white, black, pink or red silk – predecessor of the áo yếm) can be partly seen from the opening of the tunic at the front.
- A silk sash, worn as a belt at the waist and keeping the flaps into place, which could be styled in a variety of ways for that more unique look.
Traditionally, the Ao Tu Than was woven in dark colors of brown, crimson etc., whereas modern replicas tend to be intensely colorful. The dress was usually complemented by specific hairstyles like the “Duoi Ga” or “Rooster Tail” hairstyle, or its variation the “crow’s beak” which includes a piece of heavy black fabric. The hairstyle could be further enhanced with decorations of flowers or jewelry.
To complete the overall look, the Vietnamese women would sometimes wear the Quai thao hat, which is essentially a very large, wide-brimmed hat.
Longevity in modern times
Unlike the Ao Dai, the Ao Tu Than dress exists nowadays only as a representation of Vietnamese heritage. Having lost its place as day-to-day wear in modern Vietnamese life, you are more likely to see the dress at festivals or other such public celebrations. Ao Tu Than dresses, though a little hard to find, are also available for purchase online (as are doll souvenirs dressed in it), and you might even come across them when visiting the northern part of the country.
Obsolete as it may be, the Ao Tu Than remains an undeniable reflection of the Vietnamese values and inheritance. It is deeply rooted in the country’s history and speaks of people who are not only industrious, but also stylish.