WALK through downtown Yangon’s sprawling Bo Gyoke Aung San Market on any given Saturday morning. You’ll see them, stretched tightly around the waists of men and women alike or piled high in every other stall.
Silk or cotton, plaid or floral, tailormade or off-the-rack – longyis, the most ubiquitous piece of clothing in Myanmar, can be styled for every occasion.
The largest mainland country in Southeast Asia, Myanmar is best described as a nation of many distinct peoples (135 recognized ethnic groups, to be exact). And though the groups speak different languages and practice different religions, use of the traditional longyi crosses all socio-ethnic boundaries.
According to Win Hlaing, a historian and general manager of the Heritage Travel Company, the longyi’s ubiquity can be traced to its colonial origins. Before the British arrived, the subjects of Burmese kings wore the paso, an extravagant wrap-around skirt that could be up to 30 feet long. Other ethnic groups, such as the Shan and Kachin, had their own traditional wear. But when the British steamed up the Irrawaddy in 1885 and marched King Thibaw out of Mandalay, they brought with them the customs and administrative elite of Burma’s previously-colonized neighbours. They also brought their military might and technology to influence more of the fractured region.
“The longyi came with the colonialists,” Win Hlaing says. “They brought it from India.”
Less expensive to make and less cumbersome to wear, the longyi’s versatility allowed it to slowly replace use of the paso, and its influence spread outward from the city centers into the central highlands and mountainous border regions.
The modern iteration of the skirt typically runs from waist to foot and is comprised of a tubular piece of cloth typically spanning two metres. Men fold and twist the loose ends at the front of their waist, while women tuck it tightly around their sides. It can, however, be worn in a variety of ways: when playing sports, men sweep the bottom between their legs and back to the waist for increased mobility. Women hoist it to their armpits when bathing in public so as to remain modest.
But despite its versatility, a new wave of Western influence is threatening the longyi’s place in Myanmar culture. As the country experiences its democratic transition and opens up trade with the outside world, urban areas such as Yangon and Mandalay are filling with shopping malls hawking the latest in American-style ripped blue jeans and miniskirts.
More and more young people, encouraged by the new - and widely-available internet, are looking to copy what they see on their phone screens.
Nida Taylor, a Yangon-based founder of Her Alchemy and Vestige clothing lines, says she thinks most young women have come to see the longyis as formal wear. Going to a concert, or out to dinner with friends? She thinks you can bet on more modern styles.
“I think women in general only wear longyis for special occasions now,” she said.
Su Wai Yee, the founder of Yangon CiCi’s boutique chain, agrees.
“People can follow celebrities more closely on social media,” she said. “Myanmar wear is the de facto formal wear for most celebrities at special events.”
But she also pointed to the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s most famous icon and leader of the National League for Democracy government, as a contradicting influence. “The Lady”, as she is affectionately referred to, is almost never photographed outside of a flawlessly matching longyi, blouse and parasol set.
Su Wai Yee has sought to accommodate Western trends into longyi designs, a strategy she thinks can foster a longyi resurgence.
“I believe a lot of young Myanmar people have pride in their traditional clothing,” she said. “I don’t see it dying off anytime soon, even if it does change.”
The modern iteration of the skirt typically runs from waist to foot and is comprised of a tubular piece of cloth typically spanning two metres.
STORY & PHOTOS BY RJ VOGT
ILLUSTRATIONS BY THEO