Miao Festival Outfit


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


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.


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.

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.


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 Art

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.


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 Art

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.


Related Activities

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

Mia has a large collection of Miao festival garments and silver jewelry. Use the search tool on Mia’s website to find various pieces of Miao clothing, including a jacket, skirt, pants, apron, hat, collar, headdress, baby carrier, and boots.