• The Miao Wedding Gown, a General Introduction
• Elements of the Wedding Gown
• Accessories to the Wedding Gown—did anyone say more silver?
• A Historical Perspective, Miao People and Culture
A Brief Introduction to the Miao Village
The Miao Wedding Gown, a General Introduction
The textile products of the Miao people are nothing short of a symphony of artisanship and tradition. The highest expression of this art is the wedding gown. A single wedding garment, when done traditionally, takes approximately 3 years to complete. A young woman begins making her own wedding garment at the age of approximately fifteen in preparation for her wedding at eighteen or so. The girl, by age 15, has already learned how to sew everyday clothes, a skill prerequisite to marriage. However, attaining the high art of wedding garment construction is the final stage of her skills training, and the production of the garment itself is her masterwork.
Elements of the Wedding Gown
Prominently featured in the gown, in addition to the new work done by the girl, are fragments of wedding gowns made by previous generations of her family. Some wedding garments include fragments that are over two hundred years old. In addition to the ancient fragments, a wedding gown is usually adorned with silver or silver alloy (depending on the wealth of the family). The silver is beaten into flat discs or squares, which feature animalistic representations or geometric patterns. These discs are then sewn onto the jacket that forms the upper portion of the wedding gown.
The lining of the wedding jacket (hereafter called simply jacket) is rough cotton usually dyed black (fig. 1). The outer shell of the jacket is made of silk brocade (fig. 2). The silk brocade is not made or dyed by the Miao; it is brought in as an “import” from the Chinese culture that surrounds them. In the ancient past, the outer shell was probably made from cotton as the lining still is today, but it would have been dyed in bright colors appropriate for the wedding day.
Sewing the lining and outer shell of the jacket does not require special skills. The true artisanship comes in when it is time to adorn the shell with the intricate embroidery that is the hallmark of the Miao. As mentioned earlier, the jacket includes elements handed down from generation to generation. The trans-generational elements are the embroidered bits (fig. 3).
In figure 3, the embroidery was done entirely by hand sometime in the late Qing dynasty. The knots that make up the embroidery are not more than 1 millimeter in diameter—see figure 4 for a microscopic view. The embroidery is mainly geometric in nature, exhibiting various symmetries. However, it also depicts auspicious animals as in figure 5. In this example, we can see depictions of the phoenix. This example is actual size. The inside panel has an area of 56 square centimeters and contains approximately 500 knots!
Approximately 50% of the silk brocade is covered by the embroidery. Once the arduous task of making the embroidery and fixing it onto the outer shell of the jacket is done, it is time to gild the lily. The empty space remaining on the jacket is then encrusted with hammered silver (or silver alloy). On the average jacket, there can be anywhere from 200 to 300 individually crafted pieces of silver. The silver generally comes in the shape of discs and squares, each bearing either geometric or animalistic representations (fig. 6-9). Figure 9 makes up the center area of the back of the jacket. Altogether, it is made up of 14 individual pieces, forming a disc. The disc may represent completeness, reminiscent of the Buddhist wheel of life—the 18 rays shining from the center are common numerological symbols in Chinese/Buddhist art—consider the 108 beads of the Buddhist rosary. From a linguistic point of view, the number 18 in Chinese sounds like “yao ba”—“having (good) fortune”. The symbols may be due to Chinese influences on Miao culture, or it could have developed independently. Figure 10 is a view of the whole backside of the jacket.
Once the jacket is complete, then work begins on the skirt that goes with it. The skirt is not as complex in its general construction as the jacket. It is made of the same materials as the lining and shell of the jacket i.e. dyed cotton and silk brocade. The complexity comes from the fact that it is meticulously pleated after construction. The apparent width of the skirt at its cotton waist band is 95 centimeters (it is wrapped around the waist several times); however, the lower silk part of the skirt can potentially expand up to 500 cm due to the fact that each pleat is approximately 5mm in depth. The pleats are not sewn into place; they are merely ironed very carefully; therefore, the skirt is the most fragile part of the entire outfit (fig. 11, 12).
Accessories to the Wedding Gown—did anyone say more silver?
Once the wedding gown is complete, jewelry is then added in the form of necklaces, bangles and, most characteristic of he Miao, a headdress. Traditionally, the headdresses and the necklaces were made of silver; however, due to the prohibitive costs, cheaper alloys are generally used today—although the genuine articles can still be acquired for the right price (fig. 13).
A Historical Perspective, Miao People and Culture
[The following Section is an article used with the kind permission of the People’s Daily (People’s Daily 02/22/2001)]
Clothing Reveals Miao Group's Rich Heritage
If you are fortunate enough to visit a Miao village during festivals or when the ethnic group holds marriage ceremonies, you will be dazzled by the varied and colorful costumes and silver ornaments of Miao women.
Miao festival clothes are appealing not only because of their unique styles and craftsmanship, but also because they reveal the rich Miao culture and its long history.
Traditional costumes of different branches of the Miao ethnic group vary, though the craftsmanship needed to make the costumes always reaches the peak of perfection. Usually, making a set of traditional Miao clothes takes a Miao woman 1-2 years.
More than 50 percent of Miao people live in Guizhou Province. In the Miao community, which has mostly been closed to the outside world, their religious beliefs are often thought of as primitive. The motivation behind Miao women's hard work needed to make their clothes is their devotion to their ancestors. It has long been a tradition for Miao women to use embroidery and sewing to show how much they worship their ancestors. Mountains and rivers make Miao areas difficult to access, which has lessened the impact of modern civilization and helped them to maintain old traditions. Some old costumes from Chinese history that were recorded in ancient books from the Han Dynasty (BC 206-AD 220）have long since disappeared in many parts of the country. However, one can still find such costumes in the Miao community. Some foreigners who have visited the Miao have called them "living terra cotta warriors."
Without written script, Miao people have used their costumes to record their history. Different patterns and designs on the clothes retain rich meaning and refer to legendary stories about such things as their origins, wars and religious beliefs.
Because hand-made Miao costumes are sewn individually by Miao women in their homes, there are hardly two costumes with the same style or pattern.
The Miao hundred bird coat, originally worn on major occasions to worship ancestors, is now festival attire. The coat is big and loose with no collar. Hundreds of birds and dragons are embroidered on the front and back. It is made of 7-10 strips of bands with embroidered patterns of frogs, dragons, birds, butterflies and insects, symbols of the Miao's mystic culture.
Silver ornaments make up an important part of Miao dress. Silver is believed by Miao people to be the symbol of light which can dispel evil spirits. When bathing a new born baby, parents often put a piece of silver into the water to act as a blessing for the baby's future. Miao families also dress up their daughters with silver ornaments. During some occasions, silver worn by young women in their best clothes weighs more than 10 kilograms.
Miao girls begin to learn weaving, embroidery and cross stitching from the early age of 6 or 7. A girl often pours great energy into making an embroidered dress. When she finishes the dress for herself, she shows she is ready to marry. The dress reveals the girl's talent and ingenuity.
In some Miao areas a tradition of "secret embroidery" has been handed down to current generations. When girls reach the age of 15 they begin to make their "secret embroidery" behind closed doors. These secret works include small caps, shoes and "infant packs," which are prepared for the future when a woman gets married and has babies. This embroidery will be exhibited to the public at the girl's wedding ceremony. Usually there are around 100 items to display.
Embroidery methods are varied and include "zhouxiu," "sanxiu" and "duihua.". "Zhouxiu" is embroidery which is done by plaiting silk thread into braids, folding it on cloth and then fixing it with thread. The patterns of this embroidery create a striking decorative effect. Traditional Miao costumes for holidays are made using three methods which are called "bright clothes." This involves a large amount of silver ornaments being fixed to clothing.
Miao women are also proficient in batik. The batik dyeing is meticulous and a long-standing tradition among the Miao. Their colored batiks are renowned at home and abroad.