Why you should care
Because Myanmar’s traditional dress is cool, cheap and attractive. And because men deserve to wear skirts, too.
In Myanmar, the low-rise colonial buildings are brightly colored, people shoot the breeze in tea shacks lining the road and almost everyone dresses in traditional wraparound skirts called longyis. Now Western tourists are beginning to catch on to this old-world look with its easy, breezy charm.
Unlike a sarong, the longyi (pronounced “long-eee”) is a cylinder of fabric that you step into or lower over your head, much like a Western skirt. Men wear plain-colored, striped or check-patterned longyi, known as pasos, secured with a large knot tied at the front of the body and usually worn with a Western shirt. For manual labor or playing sports, men scoop up the loose fabric and tuck it in at the waist, creating a garment that resembles a pair of shorts and a diaper.
Women favor brightly colored styles, called htamein, in a range of vivid patterns and pair them with traditional cropped Burmese blouses or T-shirts. The fabric is folded to one side and tucked at the hip rather than knotted — a wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen for the inexperienced. Most longyi are made of cotton, though any material — from Indonesian batik to crushed silk — can be used, and on special occasions, more elaborate silk and brocade longyi are the norm.
In a society that remains poor and largely rural, the simple tubes of fabric can be bought cheaply or made at home. What’s more, because everyone wears them — from cleaners to the activist and national hero Aung San Suu Kyi — the longyi is something of a social equalizer.
Aesthetics aside, it’s hugely practical. Myanmar is steaming hot most of the year, and the longyi is a more cooling garment than shorts or trousers.
Foreigners are increasingly taking an interest in the country’s culture, and the longyi seems to enjoy particular popularity
Today, after promises of reform led to a lifting of the travel boycott sparked by its military rule, Myanmar’s tourism is booming. It welcomed more than a million foreign tourists in 2012, and the tourism industry has seen jaw-dropping annual growth of 67 percent. For many visitors, the longyi stall at the local market is an essential stop. Every day, Western women point to their favorite colors and select their must-have souvenir.
“Foreigners are increasingly taking an interest in the country’s culture, and the longyi seems to enjoy particular popularity,” according to Myanmar’s Irrawaddy magazine. So many foreigners have taken to sporting the traditional look, in fact, that an affectionately mocking Facebook page now showcases them.
Off the beaten track, a longyi sells for less than $3, while larger markets in Yangon or Mandalay offer them for $8 or $9.
On a recent trip to Myanmar, I stopped at a small village market near Yangon, where I was greeted by the female Burmese sellers who helped me pick out the ideal longyi, adjusted it with a manual sewing machine, taught me to tie it and offered lavish compliments.
Theirs is a subsistence economy, and few traders would dream of expanding their business internationally. So if you’re dying to try this hip fashion trend but can’t jet off to Asia, longyis are available from Burmese retailers like Myanmar Handicrafts and online outlets like eBay.
Just be sure to tuck it in securely before stepping out in your daring new look.