How long can the longyi last?

The Myanmar Times - - News - LUKE CORBIN news­room@mm­times.com

LOOK out at the street: What do you see men wear­ing? I’m will­ing to bet there are at least a few well-tied longyis wrapped around bel­lies out­side, wher­ever you are in the coun­try.

The longyi has pro­lif­er­ated in Myan­mar since Bri­tish colo­nial times. The mas­cu­line, tubu­lar gar­ments as we know them to­day first be­came pop­u­lar in the 19th cen­tury, grad­u­ally re­plac­ing the for­mal paso, a much larger, more re­gal ar­ray of male dress, and be­com­ing the com­mon gar­ment for men of all classes.

While skirts the world over have nearly al­ways pre­dated trousers – which only be­came pop­u­lar when Eurasian cul­tures do­mes­ti­cated the horse – the longyi as a par­tic­u­lar phe­nom­e­non is re­gional to the Bay of Ben­gal, with mild pro­nun­ci­a­tion dif­fer­ences across the bay’s main lan­guages.

In West Ben­gal they come most of­ten in hues of light blue; in Bangladesh you can find quite rad­i­cal and ex­per­i­men­tal pat­terns. Here in Myan­mar the longyi is at its most re­fined: sub­tle grids, firm lines and crisp hems in qual­ity coloured silk and cot­ton.

In Kolkata, the longyi is con­sid­ered a Mus­lim, lower-class form of dress, paired mostly with a white sin­glet. In Salt Lake City, a mid­dle­class sub­urb of the city, I was even re­fused en­try to a restau­rant be­cause of my longyi.

Once the largest city in the “longyi belt”, and his­tor­i­cally a longyi-ma­jor­ity zone, Kolkata has now turned on them. If you wear one there now, you are con­sid­ered a Mus­lim – and prob­a­bly a poor one at that.

While West­ern­ers with white skin are de­sir­able cus­tomers the city over, if you are wear­ing a longyi you may find your­self barred from “A/C-level” venues – like I found my­self.

In the cities of Dhaka, Yan­gon and Man­dalay, cer­tain com­bi­na­tions of shirt and longyi can de­note one’s oc­cu­pa­tion or trade – and then of course there are the school uni­forms. In­ter­est­ingly, many pat­terns adorn­ing Myan­mar longyis are marked as be­ing of “eth­nic” ori­gin, al­though the at­tri­bu­tion may be more a mat­ter of brand­ing than strictly rep­re­sen­ta­tive.

I own sev­eral “Chin” longyis but have never seen one worn by any­one in Chin State, nor seen them for sale in any of the hill towns. There are sev­eral cul­tural groups in Myan­mar that rarely if ever tra­di­tion­ally wore longyis, find­ing them­selves only re­cent in­her­i­tors of the dress for sale in “tra­di­tional pat­terns” at a de­part­ment store near you.

There is clear util­ity to the longyi: It is sim­ple and cheap to man­u­fac­ture, can dou­ble as a towel or sheet, and is per­fectly suited to Myan­mar’s cli­mate with its abil­ity to pro­vide “nat­u­ral A/C”. And of course, for those who care to risk the risqué, you can go re­ally “breezy” and sans un­der­wear.

This cool­ing abil­ity is in­tu­itive and eas­ily recog­nised: When crossing out­back Aus­tralia in a longyi dur­ing a heat­wave in 2012 I re­ceived many jeal­ous com­ments from the less for­tu­nate sweat­ing it out in pants. When re­spond­ing to the sticky and un­com­fort­able, I was only too happy to sing the praises of a skirt in sum­mer.

If any doubters ex­ist, I chal­lenge them to walk to their lo­cal Myan­mar mar­ket – first in shorts of their choos­ing, then in a longyi. Let the damp­ness de­cide.

But for all its util­ity, for all its de­served re­spect, the longyi is in danger.

Euro­pean-style cos­tume has been steadily dom­i­nat­ing the world since the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion, lead­ing to a su­per­fi­cially ho­moge­nous ar­ray of dress flour­ish­ing across the oceans. It is a vi­sion of young peo­ple sweat­ing in Le­vis from Makas­sar to Bo­gota.

The longyi has re­sisted this push un­til to­day, stub­bornly re­main­ing pop­u­lar due to its util­ity and – let’s be hon­est – partly as a con­se­quence of Myan­mar’s po­lit­i­cal his­tory. Wear­ing pants was for a time con­sid­ered an act of pol­i­tics, not just of style.

But times have changed and trousers are on the rise in Myan­mar. Jeans in par­tic­u­lar ap­pear to be lead­ing the charge. I swel­ter wit­ness­ing so much tightly clad denim on a 35 Cel­sius day, con­strict­ing the legs of Myan­mar’s Mil­len­ni­als. I can only imag­ine the plight of their pores, broiled to burn­ing tem­per­a­tures, invit­ing heat rash with ev­ery rub and shuf­fle.

The re­cent in­crease in dig­i­tal and video ad­ver­tis­ing re­flects this trend. It has be­come rou­tine for Gen­er­a­tion Y and Mil­len­ni­als to be rep­re­sented in pants or jeans on-screen, es­pe­cially if the advertisement is tap­ping into the ubiq­ui­tous nar­ra­tives of “change”, “mod­erni­sa­tion”, “cos­mopoli­tanism” or the “global econ­omy”. In the same ad­ver­tise­ments, if there is a longyi at all, it is worn by older gen­er­a­tions and author­ity fig­ures.

Is this the fu­ture we want for the longyi? Be­ing rel­e­gated to the “old guard”? Then again, why should Myan­mar males be forced to choose be­tween pants and longyi?

A syn­ergy could arise. In the early 20th cen­tury it was pop­u­lar for ur­bane men to wear their longyis with English-style leather belts and dress shoes. Could we see denim longyis in the fu­ture? Care­fully aged rips at knee height? Longyis with cargo pock­ets? It would be bet­ter than no longyis at all.

Post­mod­ern fash­ion de­sign­ers of the fu­ture: Do not for­get the longyi. Re­spect it. And may we never see the day a Myan­mar restau­rant re­fuses en­try to the breezy, the bold, the beau­ti­ful longyi.

Luke Corbin is a PhD can­di­date in the School of Cul­ture, His­tory and Lan­guage at Aus­tralian Na­tional University, and a mem­ber of the ANU Myan­mar Re­search Cen­tre. This ar­ti­cle is a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween The Myan­mar Times and New Mandala – a spe­cial­ist web­site on South­east Asian af­fairs based at ANU.

Photo: Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe

Poke­mon Go at­tracts wear­ers of both longyis and trousers in down­town Yan­gon, though in­for­mal sur­veys show the lat­ter pre­dom­i­nate.

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