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Thailand (Blue Hmong)
Thailand (Blue Hmong), Ceremonial Skirt
Thailand (Blue Hmong)
Ceremonial Skirt, 20th century
cotton and synthetic materials
H. 25 x W. 35 in.

Can what we wear be art? Clothing covers and protects our bodies from harsh elements such as wind, rain, sun, and cold weather. It can also serve as decoration for the body. This brightly colored and carefully sewn skirt is an example of Hmong (pronounced MUNG) textile tradition involving great skill and complex design.

About the Art

The Hmong, whose name means "free people," once lived in central and southern China. During the 19th century, many Hmong families migrated into the mountains of Southeast Asia. There they lived scattered in small village groups in northern Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. The Hmong people are generaly divided into two subgroups: White Hmong and Blue (also called Green) Hmong. These names come from the colors used in traditional clothing. The groups also have some differences in customs and language.

This vividly colored knee-length skirt was made by a Blue Hmong woman living in a refugee camp in Thailand. It was made to be worn for the most important Hmong celebration--the New Year festival. Traditionally, textiles have been a focal point of Hmong New Year celebrations. To the Hmong people, new clothing celebrates the good fortune of the past year and is a sign of future prosperity. Wearing old clothing on the New Year is an omen of misfortune and poverty.

The New Year is a time of courtship and celebration. By wearing elaborate clothing, young women show off their personal beauty as well as their textile skills. Finely sewn attire is considered a sign of a woman's hard work and increases her value as a wife. Wearing one's finest dress to a New Year celebration helps attract a prospective partner.

This skirt displays the high standards that the Hmong apply to needlework. These standards can be seen in elements such as the tiny stitches, complex designs, precise patterns, and straight borders. The design of the skirt has a festive and spirited feeling. This feeling is created in part by brilliant contrasting colors--bright pinks, oranges, yellows and greens that sparkle and dazzle the eyes. Complementary colors of hot pink and lime green create a dynamic optical sensation and appear especially vibrant when placed next to each another.

Skirt in use
 Ceremonial skirt in use

Characteristic of the Blue Hmong style, this skirt includes three design sections. The top section is a band of white cotton material. The middle panel is covered with a batik pattern, created by a fabric-dyeing technique that uses wax to make a design.

Pieces of cloth are then sewn on the batiked material in a technique called appliqué (applying a cutout decoration to a larger piece of material). Finally, on the bottom of the skirt is another band decorated with a design of cross-stitch embroidery and appliqué. The variety of design motifs on this skirt are created without stencils, patterns, or rulers; rather, they are done simply by eye and memory, with a steady hand guided by the grain of the fabric's woven threads. The entire skirt is accordion-pleated and contains as much as nine yards of fabric.

In Laos, skirts made for the annual New Year festival were worn for daily wear during the following year, while new and more elaborate costumes were created for the next year's celebration. In the United States, Hmong girls have adopted Western-style clothing for everyday wear and dress in Hmong clothing only for ceremonial events. Today, many skirts incorporate synthetic materials and dyes, resulting in the fluorescent colors that we see here rather than the all-natural fabrics and primary colors of earlier traditional dress.

Closeup view of weaving
 Close-up view of weaving

Vocabulary Terms

accordion-pleated--A series of accordian-like folds, often found in clothing.

appliqué--A sewing technique in which a cutout decoration is attached to a larger piece of material.

batik--A fabric dyeing technique in which the pattern is first drawn with beeswax onto the cloth with a metal tool, and then the cloth is immersed in dye. The areas covered by the wax are not affected by the dye, creating a pattern that can be seen when the wax is removed by boiling the cloth. Wax and dye applications may be repeated for color variation.


complementary colors--Colors which appear opposite one another on a color wheel. When placed next to one another, complimentary colors are intensified and often appear to vibrate.

cross-stitch embroidery--Needlework stitch which forms an "x."

motif--A dominant theme, idea, or pattern in a work of art. Motifs are often repeated.

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