A Piece of History

Vietnam’s story woven in fabric

Issue: Mar 2010

The traditional ao yem is now only worn during special festivals
The traditional ao yem is now only worn during special festivals
Photo courtesy of my.opera.com

Say Vietnamese fashion and what springs to mind are the lithe, local girls in their pristine ao dai, the national costume which consists of a long, fitted gown with long sleeves, a high collar and hip-high slits on either side worn over a pair of silk pants or quan. But just as Vietnam is not a homogenous society but an eclectic mix of more than 50 ethnic groups, each with their own dialect and cultural heritage, so Vietnamese fashion is more than just the quintessential ao dai. In fact, Vietnam’s traditional wear is a reflection of the developments in its history, with each piece of fashion bearing the stories that make up Vietnam as we know it today.

Seat of Power, Centre of Fashion

The ao tu than of today as used during special festivals now comes in vibrant hues
The ao tu than of today as used during special festivals now comes in vibrant hues
Photo courtesy of www.chinesemusicblog.com

In ancient days, Vietnam’s centre of power was found largely in the north of the country. Due to its close proximity to China, some measure of Chinese influence did flow into the country. The style of the north then – the ao tu than – was thus inspired by the Chinese Hanfu. As power flowed from the north, the fashion of the region also dictated general fashion norms. Dating as far back as the 12th century, this traditional outfit of the Northern folk can be considered one of the oldest Vietnamese outfits.

Roughly translated, its name ao tu than means “four-flapped dress” because it consists of 4 pieces of garment: an almost floor-length, flowing outer tunic split in front; a long skirt worn beneath; the ao yem worn under the tunic and a silk sash belted at the waist to hold the tunic’s flaps in place. The colours of the ao tu than were usually somber because it was the dress of commoner women.

As Vietnam expanded southward, and different influences came into play, the ao tu than became associated almost exclusively with the north. Today, the ao tu than is worn only during special festivals in northern Vietnam.

In time, the ao tu than evolved into a 5-paneled outfit called the ngu than, referring not only to the five panels of outfit but also to the Asian concept of the five elements of Nature. This outfit came to be worn by the aristocrats who, despite the humid tropical weather of Vietnam, liked to wear multiple layers of clothes because it signified that they had the time to spend dressing up and also the money to splurge on many clothes.

Worn beneath the ao tu than is the ao yem or simply yem. It is a square piece of cloth secured to the torso with strings. This traditional halter top is usually worn beneath a shirt, the flaps of which were secured in such a way as to reveal a little of the ao yem.

Unlike the ao tu than, the ao yem was worn by women of all classes, though in different ways. Peasant folk favoured brown or beige and wore them with a skirt called the vay in a no-fuss fashion while urban folk preferred white, pink or red ao yem and wore them under other garments, favouring a less revealing style.

Practical People, Practical Wear


Vietnamese woman in an ao ba ba with the non la on her head Photo courtesy of Vietnam-Beauty
Vietnamese woman in an ao ba ba with the non la on her head
The Vietnamese are a practical people and this pragmatism can be seen even in their fashion. In the South, the ao ba ba a sort of silk pyjamas was the traditional costume of the rural people. Consisting of a pair of silk pants and a long-sleeved, long, silk shirt with buttons down the front, waist-high slits on either sides, and pockets below, the ao ba ba was favoured for its versatility and simplicity. Its light material and roomy cut made it comfortable enough for labouring in the fields or lounging at home.

Because it was largely a rural society, the footwear of the Vietnamese people also reflected their practical needs. The guoc moc or wooden clogs were perfect protection for working in the soggy padi fields or for fishing. The guoc moc was made of white wood and often left unpainted with the soles of women’s clogs shaped like an hour-glass while the men’s were straight.

As protection from the heat and the torrential rain of the tropics, the Vietnamese had the non la or conical hat. Made of straw, it is secured to the head with a strip of silk tied under the chin. This headwear is as iconic of Vietnam as the ao dai and traces its history back some 3,000 years.

While many of the traditional wear of the Vietnamese only get an outing on special occasions these days, every piece of garment and every article of fashion is anchored in a part of Vietnamese.

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