By Gaoli Moua, Staff writer & copy editor
One can tell many things about a person by the way they dress – from the genre of music they may prefer to their personal hygiene and sometimes where they come from. The same is true of Hmong traditional clothing. Many times Hmong is confused with Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai because the Hmong are from and still live in Southeast Asia. However, by observing the traditional clothing, it is obvious that the Hmong are unique.
Hmong clothes are traditionally handmade by the women of the family. Girls are taught and encouraged to practice “paj ntaub,” or hand embroidery and needlework, at an early age. They reproduce the intricate designs associated with each subgroup and family that vary from region to region. Hmong subgroups can be identified by markers on their clothing. For example, the Striped Hmong Group (Hmoob Quas Npab) wears stripes on their headgear and arm bands.
Traditional clothing for men often consists of long black fishermen pants secured at the waist by a red, green or pink cloth band and sometimes embroidered bands. Men usually wear wraparound tops that are tucked in and embroidered at the neckline and sleeves. For special occasions, men will wear white shirts with an embroidered vest on top. Silver coins and beads are added to embroidered vests, bands and purses that are tied around the waist or layered over the basic pieces to represent wealth.
The traditional dress for women is most interesting and can look heavy with all the different layers, depending on which subgroup the type of clothing is associated with. Women usually wear ¾ sleeved wraparound tops that are embroidered at the neckline and sleeves but can choose to wear long black pants for a more casual look or a pleated dress for a more dressed-up look. The waist is also held up by red, pink or green bands and can be decorated with embroidered bands.
Depending on which subgroup the clothing represents, the designs on the bands, skirt, headgear and jewelry vary. For example, the White Hmong (Hmoob daub) wear plain white pleated skirts while Green Hmong (Hmoob ntsuab) dresses are dyed indigo with needlework.
Along with the optional coins and beads to dress up an outfit, Hmong jewelry consists of silver neckpieces, bracelets and earrings. The designs of silver pieces also vary depending on subgroup and region.
In the U.S., more and more Hmong are hesitant to put on their Hmong garb because it can be time-consuming to put on the layers of clothing, bands and heavy jewelry. Hmong-Americans typically only wear the traditional clothing to take photos and during special occasions such as the New Year celebration or weddings. The fast-paced lifestyle in industrialized countries limits time available to hand-embroider clothing so a lot of traditional clothing is purchased and some of the more popular designs are printed on fabric, ready to be sewed into clothing pieces.
Despite the limitations of the modern world and the Hmong assimilation into their communities, traditional Hmong clothing is still passed on through the generations in one form or another. It is a sight to see, as the clothing is bright in color and intricate in detail.
Picture credit: Gao Xiong