It’s 8am in a crowded teashop in Myanmar’s Yangon. Porcelain teacups clatter, kiss-kiss noises signal the calling for the bill from a young waiter, and patrons squeeze in between crowds sitting at plastic tables and chairs that overflow onto the footpath. Nearly everyone, both men and women, customers and cooks, are wearing the long skirt known as longyi. As trishaw drivers wheel past sounding their bells, they too wear the longyi – although rolled up to their thighs to fashion makeshift shorts.
While similar clothing is found across Asia – India and Malaysia’s sarongs, for instance – the Burmese tradition of longyi (pronounced ‘long-jee’) is remarkable for its ubiquity, even today. Walk down the streets of Yangon and nine out of 10 people are in a longyi, with a T-shirt or button-down shirt on top – the main exception being teenage boys, many of whom opt for jeans. The longyi’s lasting popularity can be attributed to the country’s recent history: it closed itself off from the world for 50 years, only opening up again in 2012. This isolation has kept traditions intact. There are practical reasons to wear the longyi, too: it works well in the country’s hot weather.
The longyi is usually a piece of brightly coloured, patterned material measuring two metres and sewn end to end to create a cylinder. Men usually wear checked or striped longyis, whereas women choose vibrant pinks, yellows and blues, with contrasting hues for patterns or swirls, which often represent an ethnic group. Women usually pull the fabric tight from behind and fold it around the waist before tucking it into the skirt top at the hip, whereas men usually tie it at the front.
In rural areas, longyi are worn when bathing in the open at a river or a well: one simply unties it at the waist and pulls the fabric up to under the arms to cover oneself. More formal occasions like weddings or ceremonies see women and men wear their finest longyis, often made of silk with gold trimmings or swirls.
Naturally, it’s uncertain whether longyis will fall out of favour amid outside influences, whether it’s Korean pop culture or foreign tourists. And like many traditions, it’s being adapted into modern iterations. Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw, the designer behind clothing brand Virya Couture, is one of a new breed of tailors in Yangon taking traditional longyi fabrics and reshaping them into contemporary-style tops, skirts and dresses. ‘The longyi is never going to die,’ she says. ‘It will survive, just in different evolving forms.’