The Áo Tứ Thân or 4-part dress is one out of several traditional Vietnamese costumes. Besides the more widely recognized Ao Dai, Ao Tu Than is the other more commonly worn Kinh costume (in Vietnam).
Ao Dai is often given status as the ultimate representation of Vietnamese traditional clothes when in actuality, the history of the Ao Dai as most know it today (a 2-flapped tunic worn over pants) spans only about 200-300 years, depending on the source. While it indeed represents the entire Nguyen Dynasty, relative to Vietnamese history which spans thousands of years, the Ao Dai is still quite new.
The Ao Tu Than on the other hand is regarded by many as a truer representation of Kinh Vietnamese, although it is often dismissed as simply Northern commoner clothes. To this day, it is regarded in Vietnam as the archetype of Northern Vietnamese women. The dress’s origins are muddled, as are the origins of the Ao Dai, but many have traced its existence to the 12th century.
Ao Tu Than started off indeed as a common peasant dress, which is perhaps why it was often in dark browns and blacks. Although most Ao Tu Than made today are extremely colorful, it's interesting to note that ancient Vietnamese apparently preferred more muted colors, according to noted Vietnamese Court Gown Restorer Trinh Bach.
There are many different styles of Ao Tu Than when it comes to color, material, designs, adornments, and so on. As with all things during feudalistic times, these different styles often gave away the rank of the wearer in the society. Fancier and richer styles would also of course be worn at special festivals or occasions.
Regardless of its many different forms, the Ao Tu Than most usually consists of a 4 part tunic-jacket (hence its name) which reaches almost to the floor. The back of the tunic consists of one full flap, such as with the Ao Dai. In the front, there are two flaps split from the back flap which are either tied at the waist, or left dangling.
The jacket-tunic reveals part of the Yem underneath, which is an ancient diamond shaped undergarment that was most often worn in white, black, bright pink, or red. It resembles the Chinese Dudou as well as the modern halter top with strings to tie at the neck and back. This Yem bodice is usually then tucked underneath a long skirt, worn underneath the tunic-jacket as well. The last touch are the silk sashes which are tied at the waist in a myriad of styles like belts, most often over the two front tunic flaps.
Some scholars insist that the Ao Dai itself was a reincarnation of the Ao Tu Than in combination with other influences, as both the Ao Dai and Ao Tu Than are flowing tunics.
The dress as it is most typically worn today tends to be extremely colorful, using different hues throughout the dress, from the sleeves to the flaps to the Yem to the skirt.
Girl in Ao Tu Than playing Moon Lute
One of the most common styles is the tradition of wrapping hair in cloth, an indigenous practice with a long history in Vietnam.
One of the most popular northern hairstyles involving wrapping hair in cloth that is often seen with the Ao Tu Than is the "Duoi Ga" or "Rooster Tail" hairstyle. To make the "Duoi Ga", the woman usually takes a strip of fabric used for the hair known generally as "Khan Dong" (which once again, varies on material, color and design based on rank and occasion) and covers her hair so that the fabric forms a kind of tube around it. She then forms a crown around her head, and with the bit of hair leftover which is not covered by the cloth she will leave dangling to the side of her head like a ponytail, or more accurately in this case – a “rooster tail”.
A variation of this style worn at fancier occasions will have the girls covering the remaining piece of hair on top of their head with a black headscarf, in the style of a "crow's beak". This is fittingly called "khan mo qua" (crow's beak scarf) due to the sharp edge it makes at the front, similar to a crow's beak.
For weddings and other special occasions, Khan Dong can also be adorned with an abundance of flowers and jewelry. Khan Dong can often be made like hats (still built up of fabric), which only require the wearer to put on rather than involving any wrapping of hair.
Some will liken Khan Dong to a Turban, though most Khan Dong look more like heavy headbands. There did exist a variation of Khan Dong with much resemblance to the Middle Eastern Turban, worn to some extent in the past, notably by scholars.
The Ao Tu Than has almost disappeared in terms of day to day use for Vietnamese, at least in urban areas. It can still be seen to some extent in rural areas, mainly in the North.
In South Vietnam, the simpler silk pajamas costume Ao Ba Ba is preferred for day to day use.