Tran Tan Vinh

Quan ho singing features costumes that are an essential part of vietnam’s cultural heritage.

Quan ho folk songs of northern Vietnam are recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage. The tradition is characterized by a combination of musicality and performance, subtly reflected in the costumes worn by both male and female singers. The music and its fashion legacies are still brought to life by villagers during the Lim Festival, held in the first lunar month of every year.

The costumes of quan ho singers are not flashy or grandiose, but instead stress a modest appearance. What the wearer conveys is not only the beauty of the outfit but also his or her inner beauty. Female singers often wear buttoned five-panel gowns traditionally made of chiffon or silk. The gossamer outer layer is dark brown, light brown, black or puce, while the inner layer is dyed a different color such as magenta, azure, cyan or lime. The gown is not fastened all the way, leaving a part of the finely cut halter top and three folds on the wearer’s neck exposed. The typical V-neck halter top is designed with straps wrapped around the waist and tied at the front along with a pouch and a belt. The thin belt, tightly wrapped around the waist under the back of the gown, is made of bright-colored silk in hues such as scarlet, orange-red, or light pink. The loose black maxi skirt is made of modal fabric or silk materials.

Other indispensable accessories of quan ho costumes include a hat made of three layers of leaves and a turban resembling the beak of a crow. The three-layered hat is worn by female singers not only to complete their look and shield them from the elements, but also to ensure their voices resonate and carry in outdoor settings. It may be placed on the head, carried on the back, or used as a prop in their choreography. The crow-beak turban is meticulously wrapped around the head so that its centerline perfectly aligns and its tip points forward, mimicking a lotus bud. The elegance it creates for wearers echoes a line in a well-known folk poem that reads, “The turban is mistaken for a lotus.” Sandals with up-curving tips and belt accessories are also worn by female singers.

The costume of male singers is simpler than that of the female artists. Men wear five-panel gowns with tall Peter Pan collars, wide cuffs and hemmed panels that end below the knee. A pair of wide-leg, ankle- length trousers in either brown or black matches the color of the gown. Men also don headwraps or ready-to-wear turbans and carry black umbrellas when performing.

Various changes have been made to quan ho costumes over the centuries and modern versions are vastly different from their predecessors. Gowns are now embroidered, printed and beaded with great sophistication. New fabrics, colors and shapes have been adopted for a contemporary look that is more relevant to the aesthetics of today’s wearers. Fashion designers have also created updated versions for use on catwalks and in photoshoots.

Alongside traditional áo dài, quan ho costumes add to the fashion legacy of Vietnam. The costumes and captivating melodies of quan ho represent a cultural heritage that has become a trademark of Northern Vietnam.