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Many of the approximately 30 ethnic minority groups living in northern Vietnam continue to wear daily a traditional dress that communicates their cultural identity and links them to generations of history. Based on field studies conducted in villages in 1999, 2005, and 2006, this paper discusses the dress of the Lolo, Pathen, Hmong, and Yao who live in the northernmost areas of Vietnam where travel remains restricted. Connecting textiles with ancient beliefs and practices, these studies document the continued use of: a memorial display of clothing along with ancestral drums during Black Lolo funeral rites; the celestial crown of the Yao Sanchi in Caobang; and a cap made of human hair worn by Yao Lanten men. Also documented are the stitch-resist techniques in the Flowery Lolo headscarf; calendaring techniques of the Black Lolo; and the unusual portable weaving loom of the Pathen.
Ethnic dress perpetuates societal structure. Unique elements of dress distinguish various subgroups of Hmong and Yao from one another, while common elements among these subgroups define the wearer as a member of the larger group. Recent changes in dress among the Hmong and Yao reflect an interest in being modern rather than western. Some Hmong subgroups now wear industrially produced copies of their ethnic dress: while this unusual adaptation to modernity is a regrettable diminution of traditional handwork, it nevertheless clearly expresses a continuity of cultural pride. Even when western-style clothing is adopted for daily use, traditional dress worn for ceremonies affirms deep-seated cultural beliefs.