One of the most obvious features of Burmese culture, and one that will immediately catch the eye of any visitor to Myanmar today, is the colorful longyi or Burmese sarong. Before my arrival in Yangon in 2016 I had heard tell of this quintessential feature of “traditional” Burmese dress, but upon meeting the crowd awaiting their loved ones in the arrivals hall at Mingaladon Airport I was amazed to encounter its ubiquity. Positively everyone was wearing it!
While other Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Vietnam have largely adopted Western dress, the longyi is still the dominant article of clothing for both sexes in Myanmar (for women it is called htamein and for men paso). It is worn by everyone from politicians to day laborers, and comes in a dizzying array of colors, checks, stripes and fabrics. It is a cylindrical piece of cloth around 6 feet long that is wrapped around the waist and tied in a voluminous knot or tucked in at the side (in the case of the women’s htamein). It is not the most secure of garments (one of the principle gags of Burmese comedy is someone’s longyi falling down when they get angry), but it is very functional and quite flattering.
After a bit of research, I was even more surprised to discover that the longyi itself was not originally Burmese, but rather, the result of an influx of Indian immigration to the country during British colonization in the second half of the nineteenth-century. Moreover, the names that the Burmese ascribed to the different types of longyi, paso and htamein, were actually the names used for earlier and more ceremonial garments worn during the Konbaung Dynasty (1752-1885); that is, they were vestiges of an even earlier form of Burmese dress.
This intrigued me. In the 1920s, alongside Indians, thousands of Chinese, Middle-Easterners and Europeans flowed into colonial Rangoon, bringing with them their religions, cultures, and preconceived notions of “propriety” and good taste. The paso which was comprised of a single piece of voluminous cloth 30 ft. long was unsuited to an urban working environment and the htamein was deemed improper by censorious Europeans as it opened in the front below the knee, so both were relegated to the back drawer of ceremonial dress (though they can still be found today in Burmese opera). Longyi, especially longyi made out of the new cheap Manchester cloth, became the dominant style for both men and women alike, and it was soon combined with other elements of foreign clothing to create a new hybrid style of Burmese dress.
Dress was a smaller subsection of a larger, more far-reaching movement in Burmese society towards khit-san “progress” or “modernization”. In the 1920s, young urban Burmese and Indian men and women adopted khit san fashion, pairing longyi with cricket blazers, belts, and shoes, and htamein with wristwatches, perms, and European lingerie. Western styles proliferated, and well-heeled men on the streets of Rangoon could be seen in three-piece tweed suits (in the heat!) and bowler hats, as well as sandals and sarongs. In fact, the modern-day outfit of sheer cotton blouse or ingyi, lace undershirt, longyi and high heel sandals for women, and white collarless shirt, short cotton jacket, and longyi for men, is a hybrid Chinese/Indian/Burmese style that developed during this time period.
In the 1950s, Western dress was still worn for formal occasions, but with nationalization in 1963 and the military dictatorship’s twin policies of Burmanization and isolation, Western dress became more and more uncommon. By the 1960s, Burmese dress had solidified; once a hybrid style, the longyi became “traditional” clothing, and like similarly invented traditions, from the Christmas tree to Tartan cloth, was given the imprimatur of the ruling class. Nowadays, young Myanmar men and women are just as likely to wear this “traditional” style of clothing, as they are to wear Western rock t-shirts and jeans. Moreover, there are innovators who are combining the two (see for instance the “pocket-longyi” offered by CiCi Boutique), and it is likely that in the twenty-first century Myanmar dress will continue to show the amazing degree of flexibility and hybridity it has shown for the past two hundred years.