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An Exploration of H'Mông Fashion Through the Eyes of a Young H'Mông Curator

Combining elements of the traditional and the modern, Hnubflower and her collaborators have brought to life a project to recreate the fashion of many H’Mông communities in provinces across Vietnam.

The fashion history project was born of a desire to introduce a number of traditional outfits worn by H’Mông Hoa people (Bắc Hà, Lào Cai Province) and H’Mông Lềnh people (Mù Cang Chải, Yên Bái Province), along with their accompanying accessories, to the general public. The production team includes reference images from previous eras to demonstrate the evolution of H’Mông clothing between the past and present.

In this outfit put together in the style of H’Mông Hoa people, Hnubflower selected a dress and blouse featuring hand-crafted patterns on heritage fabrics, estimated to be 35 years old. The outfit is accented by a metallic necklace and bracelets from Sa Pa’s H’Mông community while the head wrap is composed of real hair woven with H’Mông Hoa wool from Lai Châu Province. The outfit representing the style of H’Mông Lềnh people in Yên Bái Province was assembled using linen woven according to a 100-year-old technique.

From top to bottom, left to right: H’Mông Hoa outfit from 1920; Audrey Hepburn in her H’Mông costume during a visit to Hoàng Liên Sơn in 1990; Hnubflower’s recreation.

Reference images and Hnubflower’s recreation of a H’Mông Lềnh-style outfit.

In the project’s third outfit, Hnubflower presented an amalgamation of elements from a range of H’Mông influences, including a robe from Sa Pa’s H’Mông community, a skirt and silver accessories from the Miêu people, a front apron inspired by various subgroups, and decorated nails inspired by White H’Mông and Green H’Mông communities in Laos and Thailand.

The third outfit is a blend of various H’Mông influences.

According to Hnubflower, after this set was unveiled, many wondered why a H’Mông-centric project employed items and styles from China’s Miêu (Miao in Chinese) people, though she explains that, despite the subcultural divisions, the two groups are both considered H’Mông, and share ancestors originating from southern China.

In order to achieve a high level of detailed recreation, Hnub took the time to self-educate using materials from various sources. As a H’Mông born and raised in Lào Cai, Hnub has been immersed in the cultural customs and daily routines of her people since she was young. She studied sources on H’Mông culture both from inside and outside of Vietnam, and contacted local people to gain a deeper understanding of various H’Mông subgroups through first-hand knowledge.

Hnub, the founder of the project, currently lives in Ho Chi Minh City and works as an áo dài pattern painter. “Hnub” means “sun” in the H’Mông language, she shares, so she chose the name Hnubflower to depict a flower that always seeks the sun. Through daily encounters with the traditional dress of Kinh Vietnamese, the idea to promote her own traditional costume started brewing in her mind. “Why do I work on the Vietnamese national costume but not those of my own ethnicity or even other ethnic minorities’ clothing?” she often wonders. That question pushed and motivated her to start collecting and promoting the clothing of ethnic minority groups, with a focus on H’Mông.

Through daily encounters with the traditional dress of Kinh Vietnamese, the idea to promote her own traditional costume started brewing in her mind.

In general, a typical H’Mông outfit comprises a handful of components: black leg warmers, a calf-length skirt, front and back aprons, a wide belt (some subgroups do not have this), a jacket, and headwear. H’Mông is an umbrella designation for many subgroups living from the mountains of northern Vietnam to the Central Highlands. In each geographical location, there are local variations in how people dress.

For example, Lào Cai’s H’Mông Hoa people wear a different style of collar and aprons compared to most H’Mông people. Instead of a V-shape collar in the style of White and Red H’Mông communities, H’Mông Hoa outfits usually feature a mandarin collar similar to Qing-dynasty costumes. Northern Vietnam’s H’Mông enclaves could be traced back to previous H’Mông communities in southern China, who migrated southwards to Southeast Asia, so their fashion still retains some elements of Hanfu. Another detail distinguishing H’Mông Hoa costumes from others is the lengths of the front and back aprons, which are the same in design, but the front flap is worn in a longer setup than the back flap.

H’Mông clothing makes an immediate impression not only thanks to its intricacy and vivid colors but also its distinctive patterns drawn using beeswax, which are characterized by minute peripheral motifs and big, bold central imagery. To create these patterns, the dressmaker dips a pen in hot wax and forms shapes while the wax is still a liquid. The aesthetics of the result depend on the consistency of the wax.

Beeswax pattern on H’Mông fabrics. Photo via Báo Hà Giang.

The most crucial factor contributing to the level of detail in the final pattern is the skillfulness and meticulousness of the wax artist. The highly intricate nature of these patterns means that it might take weeks or months to complete a hand-drawn skirt.

A flared hat as seen in northern Vietnam in 1920.

Besides their unique patterns, H’Mông outfits are made complete by the inclusion of silver jewelry. To the people, silver is not just an appealing addition for beauty reasons, but also a spiritual material that appears in many ceremonial events like weddings, engagements, and also as a dowry for newlyweds. H’Mông people believe that silver has the power to ward off evil spirits and cure “bad winds.”

Some H’Mông people wear silver items until adulthood, while others will wear them for a lifetime, treating their silver jewelry as a personal talisman. Each of the subgroups will also have its own set of beliefs regarding silver. Black H’Mông people, for example, think that the bigger a woman’s silver earrings are, the healthier she is.

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