RANGOON, Burma — Korean soap operas aired day and night on state-run television stations in this military dictatorship are changing the way young women dress.
Pastel-colored spandex tops with deep-cut necks, as well as jeans, are gradually replacing the traditional longyis, or sarongs of almost two yards of cotton wrapped around the waist and brushing the top of the universally worn velvet flip-flops.
And instead of painting their cheeks and foreheads with circles and squares of yellow thanaka, a ground tree bark said to protect against ultraviolet rays and wrinkles, some women are switching to rouge and lipstick in the palest pinks.
Even Burmese hair styles are changing. The standard of beauty has for centuries been length, and some women have grown their thick, dark locks down to their feet. Influenced by Korean styles, many are either cutting and further straightening their already naturally straight hair, or they are getting permanents to emulate what they call “Korean curlies.”
“Korea is the rising star of Asia,” said the editor of a youth-based magazine. Because he risks imprisonment for speaking to Western media, he asked that he be identified by the alias Oak Soe. He also asked that the name of his magazine not be disclosed.
It’s teenagers who are most attracted to the styles, said a shopkeeper at Dagon Department Store, one of the few places in Rangoon where anything other than traditional styles can be spotted. She, too, asked that her name not be used.
Burmese dress designers and beauticians are ordering Korean fashion books and magazines to stay in step with the emerging popularity, Oak Soe said.
Yet any wholesale transition to Korean style — or any other fashion trend besides the traditional outfits that the Burmese have worn for centuries — will be slow in coming for a variety of reasons, Oak Soe noted. Longyis are more affordable in Burma, where the average yearly income is less than $2,000. They can be bought at markets for less than $5, and are donned by men, who wear subdued checks, and women, who favor florals.
“I wear jeans,” he said, “but they are expensive. They can cost $20, and that’s not even a good quality pair of pants. I love traditional wear, but I want to dress like the rest of the world.”
Cultural pressures also have slowed the transformation of Burmese fashion, he said. “If we try to act different, people think we’re doing something wrong.”
Women in pants, as well as in sleeveless blouses and shorts, are considered rude, and tourists are advised to dress modestly in this nation.
Western brands are few and far between. There is an upscale mall, called the Myanmar Shopping Center, that has a Marks and Spencer, Dunhill and Burberry, but it’s deserted, and shopkeepers don’t turn on the lights until someone comes in.
Also, since the U.S. imposed economic sanctions on Burma in 2003, Western style is difficult to come by. American apparel makers in Burma pulled out after the embargo, although the Chinese still have several plants here. Trade with the neighboring countries of India, Thailand and China is rising, and their products are proliferating in markets and shops. And any foreign entity that wants to open a store here needs a local partner.
The military junta, which controls everything from stoplight changes to censoring all print media, also has played a large part in protecting Burma’s traditional dress. It decreed that university students must wear traditional garb. When private publishers submit their layouts to the censorship board, pictures of female Korean TV stars with plunging necklines are crossed out and banned. That censorship hasn’t seemed to apply to the state-sponsored broadcast of Korean TV shows, however.
The junta, a cast of starched green-uniformed generals, seized control of Burma after the opposition democratic party soundly won the 1990 elections. It renamed the country Myanmar — although the U.S. does not recognize that name — and exploited its gem mines, teak forests and energy deposits, and grew its narcotics trade. The junta also put Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for 10 of the past 17 years. Instead of banishing her from the minds and memories of the Burmese, however, the move elevated her to icon status. Still, her name is rarely mentioned in public and her picture is nowhere to be seen.
The years of repression, jailings, torture and brutality of the junta have marked the minds of the Burmese, Oak Soe said. “We don’t have critical thinking skills,” he said, “so we need our national identity. But there are those who want to create their own self.”
Some youth have attempted a compromise and have adopted a combination of Korean and Burmese dress. Young men may keep their longyis, but they wear T-shirts instead of starched white-collared shirts. Women also may keep their longyis, but instead of a matching top, wear a knit top in the solid pastels popularized by Koreans.
Those who are assuming Korean style are often criticized by the government media, Oak Soe said, noting, “The critics say Burmese youth want to become Koreans, and that’s a problem.”