Vietnam old-aged costume: Ao dai & Ao tu than

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Vietnamese costume

Vietnam has not merely gained well-deserved reputation for their enchanting landscapes, unique culinary art, friendly people, but Vietnam’s costume also left a lasting impression on foreign visitors to this land of rich tradition. Being one of the three crucial parts of human beings’ material life (food, accommodation and clothing), Vietnam’s costume has considerable changes in color and design through historical development to be appropriate for people’s demand, but it still preserves traditional values.

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Ao dai

The “Ao Dai” with its elegant and flattering look has long been considered to be the traditional dress for Vietnamese women. Early versions of the Ao Dai dated from 1744 when Lord Vu Vuong of the Nguyen Dynasty issued a decree that both men and women should wear an ensemble of trousers and a gown fastened with buttons in the front.

In spite of being widely used, men merely wear on ceremonial occasions like weddings and funerals. Over time, the “Ao Dai” has gone through certain changes. In 1930, Cat Tuong – a Vietnamese fashion designer lengthened the “Ao Dai” to make it a contoured, full-length dress. The dress was also carefully tailored to reflect the curves of the wear’s body, and its buttons were moved from the front to an opening along the shoulder and side seam. It was approximately twenty years later that the incorporation of the next major design and the emergence of modern Ao Dai could be clearly seen. The two long slits along the two sides allow the gown to have two free panels flying over the loose-fitting trousers.  Over the past four decades, plenty of stylish alterations have been made in color and collar design. The most noticeable change is the gradual shortening of the gown’s length which is now just below the knee. There have been also variations in the collar with two common styles: boat-neck style and mandarin collar style.  Besides, we also witnessed the emergence of more adventurous alterations, such as low scooped necklines, puffed sleeves, and off-the-shoulder designs to keep up with new fashion trends.

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Ao dai

In the past, the color of the dress is indicative of the wearer’s age and status. Young girls usually wore pure white, fully lined outfits representing their purity. For maidens- young ladies who are not married, soft pastels are their favorite color for this dress. Only married women put on gowns in strong, rich colors, usually over white or black pants. At present, there is less strict control over color, so women are free to choose whatever color they like. In addition, many new types of fabrics have also been used in making this custom-made outfit to satisfy women’s desire for flashy clothes. Nowadays, the “Ao Dai” is widely used in the daily life of Vietnamese women, not only traditional occasions like weddings and Tet holidays. The image of girl students dressed in white long dress walking along the street and Vietnam Airlines’ air hostess in their pink and blue uniform creates a lasting memory for visitors to Vietnam. The popularity of the “Ao Dai” is also spreading well beyond Vietnam’s borders. It now appears in many international events, such as APEC, world beauty contests and even on catwalk shows.

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Ao tu than

This dress is deemed to be one of Vietnam’s enduring traditional attires, having been worn widely by Vietnamese women in the North centuries before the emergence of the Ao Dai. Usually made of plain fabric in dark colors, the “Ao Tu Than” has long been a dress of peasant women.

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Ao tu than is often worn by Quan Ho singers

Besides, this costume in bright color was also worn on special occasions like weddings or festivals. Despite being different in forms, the basic Ao Tu Than consists of a flowing outer tunic with two flaps split at the waist, a long skirt worn under the tunic, Yem- an ancient bodice worn as an undergarment by women and a silk sash tied at the waist as a belt. Using a variety of hues and different types of fabrics in making the tunic, the bodice and the skirt makes this costume colorful and sensual. Nowadays, the Ao Tu Than is no longer commonly used in the daily life of Vietnamese people; however, it remains an indispensible part of traditional festivals in northern Vietnam including Lim festival which celebrates the famous Bac Ninh Quan Ho folk songs. In this festival, female folk singers often wear this attire with “non quai thao”- a kind of conical hat with fringe hanging at both sides, “Khan Mo Qua”- a black crow’s beak kerchief made of heavy fabric and “guoc moc”- a pair of wooden clogs.