Gown of Clouds and Rainbow

By Liu Yang, Ph.D., Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Thus is the account of the spiritual beings’ clothing, described in The Lord of the East, a poem written by the great Chinese poet Qu Yuan (340–278 BCE) and translated by Stephen Owen. Ever since, in China a beautiful piece of clothing has often been described as a “gown of cloud and rainbow.” The same laudatory description can be appropriately applied to the magnificent costumes and jewelry of the Miao people from southwest China.
A selection of about fifteen Miao costumes and seventy objects from a group of 1,200 purchased in 2004 will be on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) from June 1, 2013, through Jan. 30, 2014, in an exhibit titled “Gown of Cloud and Rainbow: Miao Costumes and Jewelry from Southwest China.” 

Miao skirt    Skirt


The Miao (Hmong) are one of China’s largest ethnic minority groups, scattered among several provinces, but mostly living in Guizhou/Yunnan plateau, a mountain area “beyond the clouds.” They are famous for their embroidery skills and indigo dyeing techniques, and for underscoring the central roles of textiles and jewelry in their culture.

Styles of Miao costume are diverse among the culture’s various sub-groups. A popular saying states, “If you meet one hundred Miaos, you will see one hundred costumes.” Chinese anthropologists and art historians have noted that there are more than 170 different costumes from various geographic regions, which then fall into distinct categories. Even within the same village, the great variety of Miao dress and jewelry reflects the different functions of each costume: clothes indicate marital status, age, and ceremony.

The elaborate festival costumes and silver adornments constitute the most significant forms of Miao visual art. Such costumes are not only important possessions, but also are considered the living visual art form of Miao culture. As in many cultures throughout Asia, Miao people express their identity through their textiles, clothing, and accessories. While traditional motifs record their history and beliefs and underscore the importance of dress during rites of passage, the decorative techniques, patterning, and stitches distinguish one group from another.

Variety exists within a single outfit as well. A Miao woman’s costume, for instance, comprises a jacket, skirt, apron, and gaiters. The accessories include ornately designed and fashioned silver bracelets, necklaces, and decorative ornaments. The textiles are primarily hand-woven using supplementary weft patterns and are then embellished with surface-design techniques such as embroidery and ribbon work. The Miao are also renowned for their technique in wax-resist dyes.

The MIA is well known for its extensive collection of Chinese textiles, which include imperial, religious, and secular dress. The collection of more than 1,200 Miao textiles and 450 pieces of jewelry from the twentieth century is regarded as one of the most important collections of its kind in the United States, and it complements and enriches the MIA’s important collection of textiles. While clothing in traditional Chinese society became integral to the system of social organization in its representation of the social hierarchy, the Miao textiles and jewelry in particular reveal the importance of visual expression through costume, and speak of thousands of years of Miao history and tradition. 

This article originally appeared in the spring 2013 issue of Arts magazine and is reprinted here with permission from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.





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