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HEADLINE: A fitting tradition

BYLINE: Lourdes Medrano Leslie; Staff Writer

Hmong culture has undergone significant changes since the first refugees from Laos arrived in the United States 25 years ago. One obvious transformation has been in the style of dress, as shown in a new exhibit at the University of Minnesota gallery.

In honor of her heritage, each November 18-year-old Yeng Lor trades her blue jeans for a traditional Hmong dress embellished with neon-hued beads and silver coins.

As young Hmong women once did in their native Laos, Lor wears a special handmade ensemble to the annual Hmong New Year's celebration in St. Paul. But she also wears modern platform shoes, and an evening gown replaces her Hmong outfit when the live music begins.

Her Hmong dress is currently on display as part of an exhibit of Hmong clothing as it has evolved in the state since the Vietnam War refugees first arrived in this country 25 years ago. It runs through July 30 at the Goldstein Gallery on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus.

Lor is co-curator of the exhibit with Masami Suga, a textile arts expert who has done extensive research on the socio-cultural aspects of dress in Hmong and Japanese societies. Lor, who just graduated from St. Paul's Johnson High School, met Suga through a mentoring program.

"Through dress, this exhibit posits that tradition, far from being static, is fluid and dynamic and evolves in tandem with political and cultural change," Suga said.


A new aesthetic

When the Hmong first arrived in Minnesota in the mid-1970s, the traditional clothing they brought with them represented the different Hmong dialect-based subgroups: Green, White and Striped.

"When they lived in Laos, the Hmong could tell which subgroup they each belonged to by simply looking at the dress they wore," Suga said.

Although all three subgroups wore the simple Hmong dress of that era, they distinguished themselves through design. Green Hmong favored the indigo-dyed and batiked skirt; the White Hmong the white skirt, and the Striped Hmong wore long sleeves.

"At the time, they really struggled in many ways," Suga said. "Part of that was not only how to survive in a new environment, but also how to maintain their ethnic boundaries."

In the 1980s, Hmong dress began reflecting the changes taking place in the Hmong community. The Hmong presence became more visible in schools, in businesses and in some public offices.

At the same time, clothing distinctions between the three Hmong subgroups began to blur. Hmong outfits now combined designs from all three subgroups.

"There was a lot of mixing, and matching and borrowing across the group boundaries," Suga said. "That coincided with the time that Hmong people were consolidating their subgroup differences and appearing as a strong, newly emerging ethnic group in America."

From the 1990s on, the Hmong have had to face a new reality. As the eyesight of older Hmong refugees fails or they die, the number of women who have mastered the intricacies of Hmong needlework is dwindling rapidly.

In Laos, sewing was a central part of life for Hmong women, who were responsible for dressing the entire family, using hemp fabric and other materials purchased from traveling Chinese vendors.

In addition to farming, cleaning and cooking, girls learned indigenous sewing techniques _ such as cross stitching and reverse appliques _ from their mothers at an early age.

By the time young women married and left home, they were experienced in sewing work clothes, which were made of dark fabric with minimum design and decoration, as well as the brightly embroidered outfits worn for the New Year's celebration.

  The Goldstein exhibit shows how younger Hmong women raised in the United States, who lack the sewing skills of their mothers and grandmothers, have combined old traditions with Western aesthetics to come up with a new version of Hmong dress. Printed imitations of embroidered outfits also are available at local Hmong shops.

Kaying Hang, who works for a private foundation, grew up in this country but tries to preserve her culture by using traditional pieces of Hmong dress. Included in the exhibit is one of her black business suits, which she wore to New Year's festivities, accented by her brother's Hmong silver coin vest. After the celebration, she wore the same outfit to a professional gathering.

While Hang, 27, received handmade Hmong outfits from her mother, she also bought a Chinese Hmong outfit that was made in Thailand by a Hmong sewer. "Part of it was that my mom no longer had time to sew," Hang said. "But I also wanted to make sure that my Hmong dress collection was reflective of the changing culture and our evolving community."

The dress, which also is on display, reportedly was influenced by a popular Hmong singer from China during a United States tour in the mid-1980s. In contrast to Hmong dress, which involves layering of shirts and wrappings of sashes to make the wearer look plump, the Chinese Hmong outfit has a closely fitted design to make her appear slender.

"Through Chinese Hmong dress, young Hmong women incorporated thinness as the American notion of beauty into their form of clothing," Suga explained.


Story cloths

While struggling to survive in the crowded refugee camps of Thailand, the Hmong began using their sewing skills to record their history on embroidered story cloths.

It was a way for them to keep their past alive, because many Hmong didn't know how to read or write. Male artists drew pictures depicting Hmong life in Laotian villages, folk tales, the war and their escapes. Women then stitched the scenes in a burst of color called paj ntaub, an intricate form of Hmong handwork.

As the refugees made their way to the United States, their story cloths depicted their journeys by airplane, as well as the cars, fast-food restaurants and other aspects of U.S. life that greeted them. About 100,000 Hmong refugees resettled in the United States, which secretly had recruited them to fight as U.S. allies during the war. Minnesota's Hmong population, which has a large concentration in St. Paul, is now estimated at 60,000.

Despite the growing Hmong presence, few story cloths are made here now, but a St. Paul physician who had one made for use as a medical teaching tool has lent it to the exhibit.

The doctor, Phua Xiong, turned to the story cloth as a way to get a message across to her many elderly Hmong patients who had trouble understanding the meaning of preventive health.

She commissioned several people to sew a medical story cloth that illustrates the change in how the Hmong lived in Laos _ where they farmed and raised animals _ to a more sedentary lifestyle in Minnesota. Coupled with a Hmong-language video, Xiong uses the story cloth to teach the importance of routine health checkups and other ways to prevent illness.

  "This is a good example of preserving an aspect of tradition _ which is the needlework skills _ and applying it to a new usage," Suga said. "Like the changes in Hmong dress, it's all part of the evolution of the Hmong community."


Hmong clothing exhibit

"Redressing Tradition: Hmong Clothing in Minnesota" is an exhibit that marks the 25th anniversary of Hmong immigration.

- Where: Goldstein Gallery, second floor of McNeal Hall, Buford Avenue, University of Minnesota St. Paul campus.

- Dates: Through July 30.

- Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; 10

a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays; 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

- Admission: Free; donations welcomed.

- More information: 612-624-7434.