The Minneapolis Institute of Arts www.artsmia.org
Object in Focus Miao Festival Outfit

What is your most prized possession? What does it say about you? For the Miao people of southwestern China, nothing is more valuable, or more revealing, than their elaborate, handcrafted festival wear.

China, Miao people
Jacket and skirt, 20th century
Cotton
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Ruth Ann Dayton Chinese Room Endowment Fund, The Suzanne S. Roberts Fund for Asian Art, and The Helen Jones Fund for Asian Art

On the Move
A Valued Skill
Fun and Festivities
All Dressed Up
A Closer Look at a Miao Outfit
 



Express Yourself: Miao festival garments reveal a lot about their makers. What does your clothing say about you? Make a sketch of your favorite outfit. Show the sketch to your classmates and discuss what the clothing items, colors, designs, and materials reveal about you. Combine all the drawings into a class catalogue.  



A Great Destination: Travel to remote Miao villages is becoming more popular. Use the Internet to research the Miao people, their culture, and the environment they live in. Then use the information to create a travel brochure.  



Clothing from Head to Toe: The MIA has a large collection of Miao festival garments and silver jewelry. Use the Art Collector tool of ArtsConnectEd (www.artsconnected.org) to find various pieces of Miao clothing, including a jacket, skirt, pants, apron, hat, collar, headdress, baby carrier, and boots. Then sort the collection by type, colors, or materials.  



Dig a Little Deeper: Check out the MIA’s new Web site on Miao textiles at http://www.artsmia.org/miao-textiles/ to learn even more about the Miao and view footage of Miao villages, festival activities, and textile making.  

November 2008


Guizhou Province is in southwestern China.


The Miao live high up in the mountains. Their villages are built into the hillside.


The terraced fields are farmed by hand, with the help of oxen and water buffalo.


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On the Move

For over three thousand years, migration has been a way of life for the Miao people. Originally the Miao lived in the Yellow River valley of northern China, but wars and conflicts forced them to keep moving south. Today more than four million Miao live high up in the mountains of Guizhou Province in small, remote villages cut off from the rest of society.

To survive in the mountainous terrain, the Miao practice “slash and burn” farming. Trees are cut down and the ground is burned so that crops can be grown. But the dry mountain soil cannot be worked very long before farmers need to search out new land. So the Miao continue to be on the move.

As a result of their migratory lifestyle, Miao people own very few things. Instead of cash, cars, or big-screen TVs, their most valued possessions are festival clothing and silver jewelry. These handmade garments and accessories proclaim the status and wealth of their owners. The different Miao villages and clans have distinctive colors, styles, and patterns of clothing. Outsiders refer to the Short-Skirt Miao, the Red-Band Miao, the Small-Flower Miao, and so on, identifying them by their costume.


Photos by Dan Dennehy, Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Villages today are more permanent than in the past. Buildings are made of stone or wood.
November 2008


It takes a skilled hand to embroider such beautiful designs.


Most of the cloth for jackets and skirts is woven on a loom.


Today, more women use sewing machines to make clothing.


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A Valued Skill

In traditional Miao society, women make the clothing for their families. Besides everyday clothes, they must also create a complete outfit to wear at festivals and weddings. Miao women take great pride in their embroidery, weaving, and batik. The garments a woman makes reveal not only her family’s wealth and status, but also her own skill, discipline, and artistry.

When a Miao girl is only seven or eight years old, she learns to embroider from her mother, grandmother, or older sister. Using just a needle and thread, she works to master patterns, designs, and techniques unique to her village or clan. In time, she may also learn to weave on a loom. Some of the older girls are taught batik—a dyeing method in which wax is used to create patterns.

Making clothing by hand takes a long time. Sometimes women work together on their garments. Pleated skirts are often a group effort. Several women embroider or weave parts of the skirt, which are then joined together and pleated by another woman. Jackets may be made piecemeal over time. Women work on the embroidery as they walk out to the farm fields. When they return home, they sew the pieces onto larger panels of fabric.

Although young girls still learn to make clothing, modernization is changing Miao life. Today, some wealthier families own foot-operated sewing machines, so garments can be made faster. Others buy machine-made cloth and synthetic yarn. Machine-made shoes, plastic raincoats, and synthetic sweaters can now be found in most villages.


Photos by Dan Dennehy, Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Modern clothing is becoming more popular in Miao villages. This girl wears traditional dress, but she also has on tennis shoes and blue jeans.
November 2008


People enjoy music and dance during festivals.


Beauty pageants are popular festival events. Notice the variety of the contestants’ clothes and silver jewelry.


Women buy machine-made cloth and dyed yarn at festival markets.


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Fun and Festivities

Festivals are very important in the Miao culture. Farming life is hard, and villages are far apart. Festivals lasting for several days give people a chance to gather and socialize and wear their fine clothing. Since the Miao are not allowed to marry within their own village, these occasions are also a time for courtship, when young men and women seek out a future mate.

Hundreds, even thousands, of people gather for festivals. Some travel from afar and camp on the hills. They bring food, drink, festival attire, and musical instruments. Vendors set up markets where they sell fabrics, silver, food, herbal medicine, and mass-produced clothing. Events such as horse racing, cock fighting, dragon-boat racing, beauty contests, and sporting competitions provide entertainment.

Music and dance play a large part in the festivities. Young, unmarried girls perform most of the dances, showing off their elaborate handmade garments and ornate silver jewelry. The ability to make beautiful clothing is a valued accomplishment in a wife.


Photos by Dan Dennehy, Minneapolis Institute of Arts



At festival events you can get lost in a sea of silver.
November 2008


Colorful socks, leg wrappings, and modern footwear complete a festival outfit.


Baby carriers are used at festivals and in everyday life. Carrier designs give mothers an opportunity to show off their skill and unique style.


To display their family’s wealth, young women may wear an enormous amount of silver jewelry with their festival outfits.


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All Dressed Up

Although Miao festival garments differ from village to village, all share some basics. Typically, a long-sleeved jacket is worn with a full, pleated, wrap-around skirt. Aprons are often tied around the skirt in both front and back. Trousers, leg wraps, or brightly colored socks cover the wearer’s legs. Accessories may include decorative sashes, belts, streamers, bags, and shawls.

An important part of traditional outfits is a baby carrier, used to transport and protect young children. The carrier is worn on the mother’s back, and ties crisscrossed over her shoulders keep the child secure. The carrier symbolizes the bond between mother and child. Even before a woman is married, she may make and wear a carrier to announce her desire to one day become a wife and mother.

Layers and layers of silver jewelry are worn with festival attire. Families spare no expense, covering their daughters with all the silver they can afford. Besides enhancing a woman’s beauty, the jewelry shows her family’s wealth. Sometimes the neck rings, headdresses, earrings, necklaces, hair combs, bracelets, sash hangings, and talismans are so heavy that a woman needs help to walk!

Miao women also wear their hair in elaborate styles specific to their villages. Usually, they tie their hair up in a variety of buns and knots, held in place with wooden or silver combs. The Long-Horned Miao wear large wooden combs that support extremely long hair extensions—sometimes seven feet! Traditionally the extensions contained ancestors’ hair, but today they are made from synthetic hair, yarn, and horsehair.


Photos by Dan Dennehy, Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Hairstyles can be quite elaborate—and heavy! Here a young Long-Horn Miao woman is wrapping several feet of hair around a large wooden comb.
November 2008


The MIA’s outfit is similar to the festival garments worn by this group of Long-Horned Miao women.
Photo by Dan Dennehy, Minneapolis Institute of Arts


The jacket’s batik decoration displays the maker’s skill and wealth.


At first glance, the designs on the jacket look purely geometric, but a closer look reveals abstract mountain flowers and crossed bamboo roots.


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A Closer Look at a Miao Outfit

Like most traditional Miao festival garments, this outfit of the Long-Horn Miao people has a cotton jacket and pleated cotton skirt. The long tail on the jacket’s back is unique to the Long-Horn Miao. A black wool apron (not pictured) is worn over the skirt. Today, an umbrella-shaped bag, colorful stockings, and tennis shoes would be added.

The jacket opens down the middle. Its deep sleeves are decorated with multicolored batik, a special feature since much batik is done entirely with indigo dye, which is blue. The woman who made this garment had enough time, money, and skill to include additional colors. The front of the jacket has silk embroidery and appliqué decoration in red, blue, white, and yellow. The red stands out because in Miao culture red is an auspicious color, bringing good luck. It is used frequently in textiles, especially baby carriers.

The designs on the jacket look geometric but are actually abstract mountain flowers and crossed bamboo roots. Mountain flowers flourish where the Miao live and often appear in textile designs. Bamboo roots, which grow rapidly, symbolize prosperity.

The pleated skirt has a wide band of blue-and-white batik at the top and many colorful horizontal stripes. Made of embroidered and appliquéd cloth, the stripes stand out against the black background. The skirt was constructed in separate sections which were then pieced together. Its wrap-around style allowed the wearer to use it throughout her life without making alterations.



The bright stripes were made with embroidery and appliqué.
November 2008