I love wearing Hmong clothes because the outfits are so beautiful and intricate. Depending on the style, some outfits can take weeks to months to finish. Hmong outfits for women can be worn with pants or skirts. It can range from very simple to extravagant, decorated with beads, bells, and coins. For women and girls, the outfits include a sev or apron (two aprons for pairing with pants), shirt, hlab or waist sash, a money/coin belt or bags, xauv or silver necklace, hat, and skirt or pants. For men and young boys, include a shirt, waist sash, money/coin belt or bags, pants, and hat.
Back in the old days, many young girls and women spent their free time doing paj ntaub, or flower cloth. There are two methods to make the flower cloth patterns, cross stitching and appliques. The flower cloth patterns are then sewn onto the fabric of the shirt and apron. Growing up, I learned to cross stitch various shapes, for example, elephant foot, flowers, snail, and heart. My only problem is that since it is such a long process, I got lazy and never finished my cross-stitching. My two grandmas, mom, and older sister were a whole different story. They are pros. Nowadays, there are many Hmong vendors in Laos and Thailand that machine embroidered these flower cloths. Therefore, we can buy them.
The beading or adding the coins is not that much of a process. My sister did her once, and she did it in two dedicated days. I also did one for myself, which I took a dedicated whole week. My mom spent one of her vacation days to finish half of what I had left. The skirts are also handmade. It is possible to put together a complete outfit within a few days especially since we are now able to purchased embroidery patterns. However, before pre-made embroidery patterns existed, it took months to a whole year for one or two outfits to be completed, this include the cross stitching and doing the appliqués. Personally speaking, I prefer to sew my outfits during the summer because I have more free time and by then I have already chosen and purchased my fabrics.
The patterns and designs let other people know which region the wearer is from or lives. Sometimes it also discloses which dialect, Hmong Leng or Hmong White, the wearer speaks. For example, during my parent’s and grandparents’ generation, they would only wear styles that were common to their home regions. Since they speak in the white dialect, they didn’t wear Hmong Leng pants or skirts. Nowadays, we do not care. If it is pretty and we like it, then we buy it. Growing up my sisters and I always wore stripe Hmong clothes were commonly found in Sam Neua the region where both my parents came which is located in northeast Laos. Many young Hmong girls that I grew up with usually wore the design of the region that their mom grew up in. Therefore, for my sisters and I, including many of Hmong friends, the style that we grew up wearing are our most favorite which also represents the region where our parents came from.
Over the last few years, as many Hmong sewists in Laos and Thailand, including young Hmong women in the US studying fashion and designing, learned how to measure, make patterns, and various sewing techniques, Hmong outfits have become more intricate and modernize. Hmong outfits have become more fitted than the box cut style, which is a looser, older, and boxy fit. Newer styles will include darts which shape fabric to compliment our curves, puffy sleeves, off shoulders, one arm sleeves high-lo skirts, layered skirts, and many different designs. There are also some older styles or pieces that are coming back in trends. For example, Hmong Chinese outfits, simple outfits, princess hats, and nhroo or leg warmers. Additionally, Hmong Vietnamese outfits are becoming more popular among many youths.
During the Hmong New Year, you can see many Hmong young men and women dressed in traditional wear. Usually we wear a different outfit for each day so we have suitcases full of traditional wear. It is also important to have plenty of traditional wear because in Hmong wedding ceremonies, the bride and bridesmaid are dressed in traditional wear. When one of my cousin got married, he had already brought his girlfriend to his house upon agreement, my mom went through my sisters and mine Hmong clothes. She looked for two sets for the bride and bridesmaid. I nonchalantly said just choose the sets closest at the top so she would not have to dig underneath all the pile. However, my mom said that the clothes would not be returned so she was looking for ones that we no longer wear. The groom and best man are usually not dressed in traditional wear, as they have to do a lot of bowing to the elders and parents of the bride. The very least I have seen is them wearing a vest on top of a white dress shirt. Finally, for funerals, families would dress the deceased into traditional Hmong wear that is made explicitly for the dead to enter the afterlife.
The importance of clothes transcends through generations, cultures, and geography. For example, from a crowd of Asians I sometimes can pinpoint which ones are from Korea through their fashion choices. What we wear on our bodies has meanings about ourselves. It indicates who we are as an individual and as a society.