In Army-ruled Myanmar, Young Women Dare to Bare

by Kathy Jones on  October 9, 2010 at 9:01 PM Lifestyle News
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Glamorous celebrity Chan Chan Clare, a pioneer in Myanmar's burgeoning fashion scene, was the cynosure of all eyes as she glided across to the table in a tiny sequinned dress.
 In Army-ruled Myanmar, Young Women Dare to Bare
In Army-ruled Myanmar, Young Women Dare to Bare

"Sorry I'm late," said the bubbly 22-year-old model and singer, ordering a soft drink from the hovering, rapt waiters before sitting down to discuss the latest sartorial trends in the army-ruled country.

She is busy promoting her first solo album and named singing stars Beyonce and Celine Dion as her main influences, but Chan Chan made her name through clothes modelling, a job she claimed "every girl" in Myanmar wants.

"More and more girls like to wear short skirts. We're growing every day and finding every new fashion. We go on the Internet and chat and see lots of fashion from the West and Asia," she said.

"So in the last three years we've had more confidence to wear these kind of things. No one looks at you if you wear short pants... It's not a problem now."

The military regime appears to disagree.

"Decadent alien culture such as scanty dresses is unacceptable in Myanmar society," said a recent comment piece in the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, a junta mouthpiece.

"Appropriate measures need to be taken by one and all to protect own culture," the English language article warned.

Myanmar's traditional dress, which is still mandatory in high schools, universities and most state workplaces, is the demure "longyi" -- a sheet of cotton or silk cloth wrapped around the waist which runs to the feet.

Sported by the country's detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in her rare public appearances, the often intricately patterned and brightly coloured longyi is still widely worn by both men and women across the country.

But the younger generation, especially urbanised young women, are increasingly shunning the national garb and embracing unconventional alternatives as they brush aside concerns about morals and modesty.

"Now they know the fashion has developed in our country and now they feel very comfortable wearing short skirts. They know the freedoms. They believe in themselves and they've got lots of self-confidence," said Chan Chan.

Male fashions are evolving too -- there's a growing taste for the rock music-inspired youth style known as "emo", for example -- but women's changing dress sense has unsurprisingly drawn more attention in the conservative nation.

One expatriate worker suggested the noticeable development began in the commercial hub Yangon after the regime moved the seat of government and its officials away from the city in 2005.

The timing coincided with the "Korean wave" -- the South Korean cultural invasion that has swept up Myanmar as it floods much of Asia and the wider world with its soap operas, films, "K-pop" and clothing.

"South Koreans look so fabulous and stylish in our eyes," enthused Chan Chan, who said the top K-wave fashion items -- such as little skirts and jackets, shorts and leggings -- were easy to buy and wear in Myanmar.

The craze for all things Korean is particularly striking in a nation widely known for its impoverished and isolated status after decades of military rule. Even Korean celebrity look-alike contests are now held in Yangon.

"The problem is that Myanmar's traditional fashion cannot overcome the Korean fashion," said designer Ma May Myo. "It can't compete because young girls want to wear something light and different and cute.

"They want to show off and you can't do that in a longyi."

The 34-year-old dressmaker, who set up her popular label in Yangon five years ago, said the demand from her customers for Korean-influenced styles shows no signs of abating.

"The situation has changed a lot," she said. "We can see through the Internet what is happening abroad: what designers are doing and the latest trends. It's not difficult like it was before."

In November, Myanmar is holding its first election in two decades, but observers are widely expecting an unfree and unfair poll that will keep the army regime in charge under a cloak of civilian rule.

Aung Naing Oo, a Myanmar analyst based in Thailand, said that the lack of political change was unlikely to curtail the evolution of fashion or the desire of Myanmar's youngsters to emulate their more affluent Asian neighbours.

"I don't think the military can actively stop something like that, a cultural invasion," he said. "The new generation is wanting something different after being choked for so long."

Ma May Myo said there have been attempts to modernise the style of the longyi, with Myanmar's officials sponsoring designers to promote the traditional dress.

"But the people don't listen. They put on the clothes they want," she said. "It's a good, exciting time for fashion in Myanmar."

Source: AFP

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