By Khine Kyaw
After decades of isolation, Myanmar is finally open to exposure to Western trends, including trends in clothing. Western-style trousers, shirts, T-shirts and jeans can now be found easily in many of Myanmar's cities.
On the streets, it is clear that more and more Myanmar people are choosing to wear jeans, possibly due to the perception that it is more convenient than the longyi – the traditional Myanmar fabric cylinder known among Thais and Malays as a sarong.
Some Myanmar people have incorporated jeans into their daily outfits, including Min Khant Kyaw, an employee of KBZ Bank. To him, jeans are a perfect fit for his youthful lifestyle.
“Jeans are one of the most popular clothing items in the world, particularly among young people. This is even true in our country, where more people are starting to wear jeans as casual clothes,” said Min Khant Kyaw.
Min Khant Kyaw acknowledged that this new clothing culture in Myanmar is associated with the economic opening of the country and the influx of foreign visitors. He wears jeans to work, which makes him feel more confident than wearing longyi does. For him, traditional garb is reserved for traditional events, such as pagoda visits, donation ceremonies and wedding receptions.
“I feel that wearing a longyi is so typical. If I have a choice, I would choose jeans rather than a longyi,” he said. “I guess many young people my age may feel the same. I know perfectly well that there are many people who love wearing the longyi. But I believe jeans will soon become the choice of more and more people – both young and old.”
“I respect those wearing the longyi. It is a traditional garment, so we should not abandon it. We need to preserve our culture, but we should also have the freedom to make our own choices. My choice is definitely jeans," said Min Khant Kyaw.
The charm of the longyi
Traditional clothing remains the most popular form of dress in many low-altitude areas of Myanmar, such as Yangon, where the temperature is rarely below 17 degrees Celsius and can reach 40 degrees Celsius in the summer. For people living in these areas, the longyi is regarded as more comfortable than skirts or trousers. The longyi is usually tied loosely around the waist and folded around the front. Most longyis are made of cotton and silk – a combination that is known to retain warmth in winter and coolness in summer.
Longyis thus remain popular among other youngsters, such as Zaw Min Oo, a graphic designer who considers the traditional outfit to be the most appropriate for people in Myanmar
"I usually wear a longyi because it is very suitable for our weather,” he said, adding that the weather in Myanmar is usually hot. "The longyi also takes a shorter time than jeans to put on and take off."
"I feel more comfortable and relaxed when wearing a longyi," he added.
Zaw Min Oo said he is puzzled as to how some young people can survive the afternoon heat, walking on streets in tight jeans.
"Whenever I see them, I can almost feel the air closed around me and I can't breathe. It often makes me laugh, though I don’t have anything against them. I don’t want to criticise them, but I just have one suggestion – one’s outfit should match the weather conditions."
Despite the growing number of jeans fans, Zaw Min Oo does not believe the culture of wearing the longyi will fade.
“The jeans culture may become more popular. But the longyi is still the typical fashion for most Myanmar men. For many reasons, I do not think the new jeans culture will kill the culture of wearing the longyi. I will go on wearing longyi until I die, although I sometimes wear jeans when I go out,” Zaw Min Oo said.
Though the loose-fitting traditional longyi is still popular among the majority, there is a growing trend towards jeans spearheaded by local celebrities and foreign apparel companies.
“People are adopting the new [jeans] fashion in a big way. Most superstars don jeans. Myanmar workers in Thailand usually don jeans, so when they go back to Myanmar, they bring this fashion with them while inspiring others to do the same,” said Sunee Seripanu, chief executive officer of Mc Group, a publicly traded Thai clothing company known for its Mc brand of denim jeans. R Zarni, a popular Myanmar rockstar, is one of the company’s promoters.
“Jeans have become a new lifestyle choice. With the AEC (Asean Economic Community) coming next year, more people will be traveling overseas dressing and casually in jeans or something else because the longyi might make them look out of place. So there’s demand for jeans out there,” said Sunee.
Mc Group opened its first outlet in Myanmar in 2013. Over the last two years, the company has witnessed a growing number of people wearing jeans. Two years ago, Mc’s striped shirts, not its jeans, enjoyed brisk sales. But over time, as more Myanmar workers travelled overseas and returned, a taste for denim took root. These days, many soap opera stars and singers favour trousers over the longyi, Sunee asserted.
The popularity of denim jeans among Myanmar men has drawn products from Thailand, China and Bangladesh.
Competition in the denim market in Myanmar is fierce, Sunee added. Thai and Chinese denim brands have already set up shops alongside the world’s leading brands of denim jeans.
Mc Group now claims a 40-per cent share in Myanmar’s newly-opened market. It sold 15,000 items in the first nine months of this year, compared to 9,000 in the same period last year.
As most jeans on the market are cheap and of low quality, and as most buyers cannot afford top-quality jeans, Mc Jeans has positioned itself in between the two extremes. Each pair costs between 299 baht (Ks 9,430) and 399 baht (Ks 12,590), and the quality is higher than that of the jeans from China and Bangladesh, said Sunee.
Threat to the longyi
Not all Myanmar people warmly embrace the idea of fashion shifting to favour jeans.
Moe Lwin Aung, a 41-year old merchant who runs a grocery shop at Thirimingalar Market, said that he feared that the new jeans culture might kill the longyi. He noted that culture defines the uniqueness of a country.
“I don’t want to criticise those wearing jeans. But we should be cautious about everything in preserving our culture. We should not ignore even a little thing like our outfits. To me, the tradition of wearing longyi should not give way to jeans. Otherwise, how will we retain our valuable culture?” he asked.
He called on others to respect Myanmar tradition and to preserve local culture.
“Everyone must participate in the process. Otherwise, our culture will disappear. We should not only look at big plans [for preserving the culture]. We should start from the very little things. For example, the longyi is the traditional dress. It should not be replaced with jeans. We should not be overwhelmed by Western culture. Young people should be proud of wearing the longyi. That is the basic and the most effective way of maintaining our own culture,” Moe Lwin Aung concluded.