Myanmar 101: How to dress like a man

Frontier gives an introduction to traditional male fashion in Myanmar.

Illustrations JARED DOWNING

ANY FOREIGN man can wear a longyi, but not every foreign man can wear it well.  Thus, Frontier sent its worst dressed foreign reporter to speak with one of Yangon’s best clothesmakers, U Thet Cho Oo of Liberal Tailor in Bogyoke Market, whose client list ranges from former United States president Barack Obama to General Ne Win.

The following is some of Thet Cho Oo’s advice for dressing like a local – or, at least, not like a tourist.

The starter kit

For a quick, all-purpose set of Myanmar clothes, buy:

– A fine cotton longyi (paso) that ends at your ankles when tied at your beltline (estimated cost K5,000 to K40,000)
– A white, cotton collarless shirt
– A cotton jacket

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This is the Myanmar version of the typical European three-piece suit and will be fine for business meetings, weddings and court appearances resulting from an offensive Facebook post.

An illustrated longyi (paso).

An illustrated longyi (paso).

Longyi (paso)

The paso, or male longyi (a longyi being a skirt tied with a front knot, if you’re very new to this caper) is the centrepiece of the male ensemble. There are a few general rules:

– Colours are largely a matter of personal taste, but can also reflect ethnicity. Different ethnic groups have their own colours and patterns – Mon men wear a pink-red paso, for example.
– Smaller, tighter patterns are in vogue, although “older people think small patterns are childish”, says Thet Cho Oo.
– Younger men usually wear them lower on the waist (though wearing them high helps hide one’s beer gut).
– A knot should be (very) roughly the size of a tennis ball. A knot that is too large or small betrays an ill-fitting paso. 
– Unlike Western neck ties, there is more or less one standard knot tying technique, although the knot may turn out larger or smaller, looser or tighter.  

One can gauge paso quality from relatively straightforward things like thread count, softness and quality of the pattern stitching.

Thin, cotton pasos, usually with a chequered or plaid pattern, are the most common on the street, though nothing says “tourist” like wearing a cheap paso in a formal setting. Thus, invest a little extra few smart-casual pasos for most occasions.

If you want to be extra fancy, the best paso are often shiny and metallic with patterns woven from lotus stem fibres. These can cost from K300,000 to K500,000, making them easily the most expensive piece in the Myanmar ensemble.

How to tie a paso

How to tie a paso

How to tie a paso

1. Pull the sides outward, so the fabric is taut (this is often done with a flourish)
2. Fold them inward, one over the other
3. Twist the folds together
4. Tuck one end out, and form the other into a ball-shaped knot
5. Wait for a Myanmar person to tell you it’s wrong and show you how to do it correctly

A Myanmar style shirt (leh gadone).

A Myanmar style shirt (leh gadone).

Shirt (leh gadone)

The Myanmar-style shirt, or leh gadone, is the equivalent of the Western-style dress shirt. A decent leh gadone and paso ensemble will pass muster in almost any setting.  

– A paso does not require a leh gadone, but leh gadone does require paso. (Note: Frontier editor-in-chief Thomas Kean disputes this, claiming that his wife saw him in leh gadone and trousers and said he looked wonderful. The Frontier team disagrees.)
– Leh gadone are usually white, but may be coloured in order to match the rest of the outfit.
– Like paso, the leh gadone is generally either cotton or silk.
– Unlike paso, the highest-quality leh gadone rarely cost more than K25,000 to K50,000.
– The top button of the leh gadone shirt may be open or closed. For an extra touch of class, outfit it with a single gold or silver cufflink.

A Myanmar style jacket (tike pone).

A Myanmar style jacket (tike pone).

Jacket (tike pone)

The tike pone is the equivalent of the Western suit coat in the Myanmar ensemble (although light enough that you probably won’t have to awkwardly droop it over your chair at dinner).

Lawyers, politicians, CEOs and other bigwigs wear them on a daily basis. Ordinary people usually reserve them for special occasions.

– White is the neutral colour option. Otherwise, grey, black and softer, pastel colours are in vogue, depending on the colours of the paso.
– Unless the tike pone is black, it should be lighter than that of one’s paso
– Like the paso, a tike pone might be shiny and metallic. Glistening gold is a favourite.
– Some ethnic groups wear elaborate traditional patterns on the tike pone.
– A black tike pone is usually worn by judges, lawyers and at official dinners.
– Tike pone can also indicate political allegiance. National League for Democracy supporters are famous for wearing pinni dike pone – an orange brown version made from coarser, locally made cotton – while members of the Union Solidarity and Development Party sport a white dike pone and green paso.

Myanmar style shoes and hat.

Myanmar style shoes and hat.

Shoes and hat

Soft, velvet slippers, sometimes adorned with bits of gold or little imitation jewels, are appropriate for most situations. The colours are dark and should match the rest of the outfit. It is acceptable to wear slippers with a little padding in the soles, if you’re on the short side.

In contrast, the gaung baung, or traditional headdress, is the single most formal piece of Myanmar attire, worn by grooms at weddings, members of parliament, judges, lawyers, diplomats and others of the highest office.

The tassel goes on your right side, and the most common gaung baung colours are white, off-white, grey and gold.

Should a foreigner even wear Myanmar clothes?

Despite an odd stigma against it among some expats, a foreigner in longyi isn’t tacky or cheesy, argues U Thet Cho Oo. He says donning the local attire in fact shows a good deal of respect.

“If Myanmar people give you strange looks, it is because it is so unusual to see foreigners dressed like that, but we really like it,” Thet Cho Oo said.  “It makes a good first impression.”

That being said, Thet Cho Oo does produce Western-style shirts, slacks and suits, although he will never blend Western and Myanmar fashions. Adding features to Myanmar shirts and jackets such as shoulder padding and European-style buttons is a growing trend, Thet Cho Oo explained, but he worries that it will lead to the disappearance of distinctly Myanmar styles.

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