There are many pieces that make up a Hmong outfit. When I was a young girl Hmong wear was big and bulky, very unflattering on shapely bodies. Once us girls were dressed we had gained about two to three inches in our waistlines and probably a good 10 to 15 pounds.
Gone are the days of bulky waistlines and headache inducing headwear though. Many have come up with shortcuts and creative ways to take away the bulkiness by streamlining traditional Hmong clothes.
I have many feelings about this, some good, some bad.
I look back now and am thankful for every inch of waistline gained; every headache endured; every time I wanted to sit, but wasn’t allowed to because I would flatten the pleats in my skirt; all the times I had to wait to go to the bathroom until the Hmong clothes came off; and all the excess weight I carried around every time I was dressed in Hmong clothes (while wearing pumps I might add).
I am appreciative of the memories I have of my mom sitting me on the bed, yanking my hair and pulling it tight into a ponytail, then bun, so that she could create my headdress directly on my head or me spinning in circles over and over again so that she could wrap my waist just right. My mom dressing me in Hmong clothes is one of the few memories I have of her deliberately being so close in proximity to me, which is probably the case for many Hmong women my age. I loved being so close to her, to see the many faces she made as she concentrated to get everything just right, the faces that created every wrinkle, crease and line that made up her beautiful face, to be so near that familiar scent that was my mom.
Then I would wait patiently (sometimes impatiently) for my mom to put each of my sisters together. Going through the same motions for them as she had just done for me. Years ago when we performed Hmong dancing there would be a bunch of moms dressing all of us girls. Or we would show up at some New Year only partially put together and someone else’s mom would finish dressing us. There were so many times one of my cousins would show up at a New Year and my mom being the person she is, would take their headdress apart just to put it together again so that it would be “perfect”. This was a pain, and sometimes embarrassing as a teenager, but this is the way it was and only today do I realize and understand the importance of these rituals (probably not the best choice of words, but in this case it works).
Every one of these moments happened because of hundreds of years of tradition being passed from one generation to the next – mothers dressing their daughters. I do a decent job dressing my teenaged daughter from head to toe in Hmong clothes the way I used to be dressed by my mom, but it surely would never hold up to my mom’s standards. But at least I have some sort of direction; I have the memory of my mom dressing me to guide me.
For my daughter and probably most Hmong girls her age, a headpiece is more of hat than anything else. She thinks you just pop it on your head to finish off the outfit. She would have no clue how to create a headpiece from start to finish on her future daughters. And do you know what the sad thing is? No one of her generation or future generations would even know the difference.