Sunday, January 23, 2011

CYL: Burma and the Magnificence of Mandalay

Nei Kaung La? In this installment of Clothing You'll Love we journey to Burma, a country that in the 19th century was both besieged by war and colonialism and undergoing a revitalization of the arts. On our trip to this we'll look at what the average Burmese citizen wore (a few surprises for you there!) as well as the mythically dramatic attire of the court. Who knows, in this forested land of diverse peoples and golden Buddhas, you might find some inspiration for your steampunk.

Burmese women by Braun and Schneider.
Historical Background
In the Age of Steam, Burma was one hell of a kingdom with a style all its own. I mean it. Since the 18th century, Burma was a wealthy Buddhist empire undergoing expansion in many directions, taking territory in the lowlands along the Irrawady, west towards India (claiming Assam at one point), north into China, and east into Siam. This was thanks to the powerful Konbaung dynasty, who'd built up Burma through administrative reforms, establishing Burmese as the official language, promoting literacy, and utterly squashing (culturally) indigenous peoples of the region such as the Mon and Shan to allow Burmese customs to flourish.

Needless to say, the other powers in the region weren't amused. When the Konbaung kings expanded north and east, Siam (who were undergoing a period of revitalization themselves that future musicals would be based on) and China became rather peeved and threatened Burma. So in the early 19th century, the Konbaung simply went west into the Indian subcontinent! ...and ran into the British.

A painting of Indian officials meeting with a Burmese official (middle)
This is what led to the start of the Anglo-Burmese Wars in 1824. The first Anglo-Burmese war was a British victory and resulted in Burma ceding the lands to the west- such as Assam (which as a tea lover is a damned shame). The second war in 1852 brought the fighting to Burmese shores, ending in the British occupying southern portions of the country. King Mindon decided to take his country by the reins and established a glittering new capital at Mandalay in 1857, where he promoted Burmese art and independence to culturally combat the British.... until the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885.

The Burmese gave the British one hell of a war (one of the longest and costliest in the empire's history) but it was to no avail. In 1886 the British finally cracked Burma and declared it a province of India with its capital at Rangoon. Burma spent the rest of the Age of Steam as a part of the British Raj.

King Thibaw Min, the last king of Burma

Daily Dress or: Yes, You Can Call the Skirt Something Else, Boys.
Considering Burma's tropical climate, typical clothing was lightweight and designed for ease of movement. Cotton was the fabric of choice, as it was cool and breathable and was grown locally. Dress varied region to region, particularly amongst the different ethnic groups within the kingdom, but several garments were standard.

A man wearing a longyi, headwrap, and loose jacket
The most common piece of clothing, from courtier to peasant, male and female, is the longyi. This voluminous wrapped skirt is similar to a sarong and in the Age of Steam was typically unsewn so it could be adjusted by the wearer without hindrance. A man's longyi, called a paso, was shorter and tied with a knot in the front. A woman's was called a htamain and tucked to be flat and smooth in the front. Dressier longyi were made of brightly striped, checked, or batik-printed silks under ornate jackets. While loose trousers were worn, longyi were still (and in many cases are) the main lower garment.

A quilted eingyi and draped paso for a middle class man- 1860s.
 Eingyi were a combination of blouse and jacket worn by both genders, but unlike the longyi, they had distinctly different cuts. Men's jackets tended to be stiff and tailored, with collars and frogged or toggled closures and asymmetrical fronts. Women's jackets were also fitted, but were cut with an open front for the purpose of showing off a rich or ornamented panel underneath. Women also wore colorful shawls draped over their blouses and jackets, many in loud stripes or checkers.

A middle class woman's ensemble- see the difference in cut?
Footwear was predominately slipper-like shoes or lacquered, thonged sandals. The more elite or moneyed were fond of velvet-padded ones (I would be too!). Cotton headwraps of various sizes and shapes were worn by men, though this became something that rural peoples held on to after British colonialization. Women were renowned for dressing their hair in Burma: wound around wooden combs, dressed with flowers, or pinned in coiled whorls around their heads.

Court Dress: Attire of the Earthly Divine
(Warning: the oncoming images WILL require you to have a handkerchief or towel at the ready to catch the drool from your mouth.)

Call me old-fashioned (it's all right, go ahead) but when I hear the phrase "robes of state" I expect see something over-the-top spectacular. European dress uniforms are nice, certainly, but nothing beats the grandeur of wearing your wealth on your person. Case in point- these are the robes of state for a Queen of Burma. Note how there is no doubt whatsoever in your mind that you are gazing upon a very important person.
Dear Internet: My birthday is coming up...
As much of that was due to a court sumptuary code as stunning aesthetics. For the unfamiliar, sumptuary codes were laws put in place that restricted what various classes and ranks of society were allowed to wear. Some laws protected colors (such as royal blue or royal purple in much of Pre-Enlightenment Europe), accessories (sumurai were give the right to wear two swords in Tokugawa Japan to distinguish themselves from rich merchants, and decoration (certain motifs and the amount of embroidery on a court gown were monitored in 19th century Russia). Typically they were put in place for purposes of easy identification. After all, you wouldn't want a merchant to be able to dress like a duke, would you? A side effect of sumptuary laws were that people put their best dress forward at court, in order to take full advantage of what they -were- allowed to wear.

Court dress was designed to link earthly people to the divine through impressive, stylized dress. It has a very architectural element to it (mainly because it borrowed many ideas from architecture) that made robes and headdresses look like temples; homes of gods. The various fishtails and upward peaks were reminiscent of clouds and tied the courtiers to the heavens. Literally this was the attire of gods on earth.
A page from a book of 19th c. sumptuary laws.
The opulence of court dress was also a political statement of the times. After two wars with Britain, the Kings of Mandalay wanted to impress upon their subjects and the world that Burma was still powerful and lively as ever. They did so through gold and silver embroidery and ornamentation on everything from headdresses to the hems of gowns to convey wealth and vitality.

The court robes of a military minister, marked by its red color.
Those Who Play Between
During the Mandalay period, Burmese theatre became extraordinarily popular in its various forms- partially as a way to declare cultural strength, and partially as a distraction to the constant war with Britain and Siam. Performers often wore stylized costumes similar to the court, but often adapted for ease of movement. Curved-peak collars, for example, would often be paired with simple longyi for dancers. Dance costumes were also based off of Indian styles, as some of the most popular performances were those originally based off of Indian texts and stories.

Headdresses were actually sometimes more ostentatious on dancers, puppets, and actors than the actual members of court! These behemoths were decorated in the typical "Mandalay" style: gilded with inlays of colored glass, metal, and jewels.

This ornate headdress was more likely to be worn by an actor than a queen.

Want to Sport Some Burmese Style in Your Steampunk? 
Here are a few ideas:
-Longyi. These wrapped skirts are comfortable, easy-to-make, and offer a variety of layering options for women AND men. Now guys, I know that the concept of wearing anything resembling a skirt is a little bit daunting to some of you (all right, most of you) but all I ask is try it. You can even layer your longyi with something manly, like a suede vest or jacket- maybe drape a toolbelt over it if it makes you feel better.
For ladies, longyi can be an option for all sorts of steamsonas and looks. A lot of period art show longyi that appear to be tucked up in the manner of bustling, so integrating one into your outfit could be an interesting statement of East meets West.
-Eingyi and similar jackets are fitted, like western garments, but often have an interesting or fantastical cut that could help set them apart from other blouses being worn at an event. An eingyi wouldn't look out of place on an airship traveler, perhaps worn with Western trousers or the traditional paso. Women's eingyi, with their open fronts, would also be a fun way to show off a corset or vest worn underneath.
-Court Robes can be a jumping off point for a lot of different possibilities. Whether you're mimicking the angular cut of a male minister's robe on a jacket, using the curved wing-like shapes as accents, or reproducing formal collars in metal or leather. Let the shapes be a fun guide!
-Headdresses look like a suitable base for some sort of mysterious technology or a war helmet. These masterpieces of metal can be built using a de-billed batter's helmet as a starting point, then built up with papier-mache or lightweight polymer clay details.
-Temple dancers and actors make fantastic inspiration material for steampunk as they mix the attainable clothing of the poor with the more fanciful garments of the court. Their various pieces of jewelry are also rather drool-worthy.

The court robes of a Chief Minister

The eingyi and longyi worn underneath

...and matching headdress
A Burmese girl in Rangoon, 1887.

Women's hairstyles of the period

Another court gown.
A Burmese dancer wearing a formal-styled gown

Helpful Links:
Antique vs. Art Burma- an informative blog that looks at various Burmese art objects in museums. Wonderful for studying the style of jewelry, puppets, and religious objects.
Myanmar Handicrafts - is a store based in Burma/Myanmar that sells a variety of clothing. Their longyi are very reasonable and they also offer indigenous clothing like Shan and Karen garments.
Instructions on tying a longyi- once you get one!
Htwe Oo Myanmar- is a traditional puppet performance company out of Yangon (Rangoon), they have links to videos and their flickr for photos of these little works of art. (Also Miss Kagashi has a soft spot for puppets, both from being raised on Muppets and being a puppeteer herself.)


  1. Thank you for posting all these great photos....I've just finished reading The Lacquer Lady by F Tennyson Jesse which is set in Burma so this was great to see after imagining it in my head!

  2. Thank you so much! I am currently in The King and I and we have to look up Siamese hair styles for the wives. This really helped!

  3. Thank you for posting this!
    Yes, there certainly were quite a few, very pleasant, surprises!
    Thanks for the forewarning of the need for a towel, it came in handy *drool* *drool*

  4. Very interesting clothes!!! I have learnt so much from these facts and it is always nice to know what other people would wear. I would like to try on the clothes too because I would like to see what it is like and I would also like to join in to dance with them!!!:)