RANGOON—While Burma opens up to ideas and fashion from abroad, foreigners are increasingly taking an interest in the country’s culture, and the longyi clothing style seems to enjoy particular popularity.
At Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon many foreign visitors can be seen donning the country’s national dress, praising its comforts in the local tropical climate or its stylish appearance.
One such visitor was Dutch tourist Thorsten Roobeck, who arrived only one day before but was already appreciating the benefits of the garment, which consists of a piece of cylindrical cloth that is worn around the waist and runs down to the feet.
“I was in shorts when I came here [at Shwedagon], but I thought it was more appropriate to wear this,” he said. “It’s comfortable and has good air circulation for this hot weather.”
“I do have problems with the knot; in the beginning it fell off but some people helped me,” said the student, who was traveling with his sister. “The only thing is that it lacks pockets.”
Asked if it felt unusual for a Western male to wear a dress-like garment, Roobeck said, “It depends on how you look at it. The Scottish, they wear a similar type dress [a kilt].”
“In Holland I would prefer shorts because people might look at me strange [if I wore a longyi], but they would accept it. They might think you’re a hipster or something,” he added.
Souvenir and clothing sellers at Shwedagon Pagoda said the longyi was very popular among the growing number of foreign tourists.
“Usually I sell about seven longyis per week” to foreigners, said Ko Zaw Myo Htet, 29, who owns a stall at the pagoda’s eastern causeway. “But sometimes when I have a good day I sell 10 or 15. They come in a group and then they all buy one.”
“Most customers come from Australia, Italy and France. I teach them how to wear it. First fold it left and then right, and tie it,” he said, adding that his Mandalay-made longyis cost about $3.
“They like [longyis] because it’s very easy during walking, the air can also move freely,” Myo Htet said with a smile. “When they visit Burma they want to experience Burmese styles. It’s unusual for them, so they are interested.”
“It looks very good,” his partner added. “They wear their longyi villager style, up around the knee—most people in the city wear it long” until their feet.
Among Burmese men and women the traditional longyi remains popular and is widely worn in the country, including in ethnic areas, while silk longyis are favored at official occasions.
In June 2010, the generals in Burma’s military government swapped their uniforms for silk longyis and traditional white jackets to signify the change to quasi-civilian rule, and they have worn it in Parliament and during official occasions since.
The current style Burmese longyi came from India during colonial times, but it was preceded by a similar Burmese garment called the paso for men and htamein for women.
George Scott, a 19th-century colonial administrator and journalist, was among the first to describe Burma’s traditional wear in his classic 1882 book “The Burman: His Life and His Notions.”
“The dress is very simple and picturesque. The paso is a long silk cloth […]. It is wound round the body, kilt fashion, tucked in with a twist in front, and the portion which remains gathered up and allowed to hang in folds from the waist, or thrown jauntily over the shoulder,” wrote Scott, who on occasion wore a paso himself.
Another foreigner who has come to appreciate the comforts—and stylishness—of the Burmese longyi is David Stout, website editor for the Democratic Voice of Burma.
“It’s comfort, it’s cool … It’s practical with the weather, stylish and very classy,” he told The Irrawaddy recently, adding that wearing a longyi on holiday in Rangoon three years ago felt like “liberation of the man.”
“I come from a culture where if a man wears a skirt everyone thinks there’s something a little wrong with him. Maybe it’s a little right—maybe Burma’s onto something,” Stout said.
He also recalled the positive reactions he got from local people after a monk at Shwedagon Pagoda got him and his friend fitted with longyis.
“I got a blue one and my buddy got a maroon one—and the response was spectacular,” Stout said. “Walking down the street, I have this vivid memory of this guy coming to his balcony and yelling ‘chaw tae’ at me, which I believe means ‘handsome.’”
Additional reporting by Charlie Campbell