Burma's New Fashion Icon—The Lady

Zarni Mann The Irrawaddy

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In the fashion-conscious West, magazines such as People, Vanity Fair and Vogue love to run covers and photo shoots of all its most glamourous first ladies—Michelle Obama, Samantha Cameron and, of course, the seductive Carla Bruni Sarkozy.

These women are considered fashion icons, their stylish outfits and manicured looks influencing millions of businesswomen and fashionistas around the world.

But most of these leading ladies—like the movie stars who grace Hollywood’s red carpet—spend lavish amounts on their appearance, and hire one or more stylists to advise them on their hair, their make-up, their jewelry and the cut of their designer dress.

Not so in Rangoon where the most imitated trend-setter is currently “The Lady”—pro-democracy leader and soon-to-be parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi whose traditional yet colorful dress sense is the talk of the town.

Over the past two months a harrowing election campaign left the pro-democracy leader exhausted and frail; however, at each and every public appearance she charmed crowds with her grace, and radiated glamor.

During a more lighthearted moment at a press conference in Rangoon last week, one reporter asked Suu Kyi whether she had someone who chose her dresses for her. The Lady refused to be drawn into a self-centered debate, responding only that she makes do with whatever is at hand.

This then, more than anything, is the allure of Suu Kyi’s style—her simple but traditional Burmese attire.

Unlike in more developed countries where designer labels and luxurious accessories adorn the well-heeled, in Burma women of all classes can copy Daw Suu’s wardrobe of handmade traditional blouses (anyi) and colorful sarongs (longyi). Rather than accessorize with expensive jewelry, Burma’s pro-democracy leader prefers to wear garlands of flowers in her hair and simple sandals on her feet.

Back in the 1990s, when Suu Kyi fever first took root, Burmese ladies showed support for their heroine by ordering similar styles at their local tailors. An “Aung San Suu Kyi-style front-fastening tunic” and a “Daw Suu-inspired neckline” were typical requests.

During her period of house arrest, Suu Kyi reportedly received many presents of clothing from admirers and supporters, but mostly ordered fabrics from Rangoon’s Scott Market, and designed the patterns by herself.

At Scott Market, cotton fabric for a simple longyi costs around 5,000 kyat (US $6), but can go up to 12,000 kyat ($14) for cotton with silk embroidery. Cloth for anyi generally costs 3,000 to 10,000 kyat per meter, well within the budget of most housewives.

A hand-woven silk cheik longyi, on the other hand, will cost between 30,000 and 1,000,000 kyat.

On the day she was released from house arrest, The Lady appeared at the gate to her house in a light plum-colored outfit. The pink-purple combination quickly became popular and was closely associated with Suu Kyi’s freedom.

At meetings with foreign dignitaries, The Lady proved she was no shrinking violet. From the pink and red combination she wore when greeting Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to the forest green ensemble she donned for British Foreign Minister William Hague’s visit in January, Suu Kyi looked resplendent.

When the Nobel Peace Prize laureate met an exuberant US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Dec. 1, the pair clashed—in a fashion sense. Clinton arrived in a white tunic and black slacks, similar to Suu Kyi who donned an ivory blouse and black longyi. However, it was the Burmese who carried off the look with poise.

When the pair next appeared for a photo-op the following day, the US secretary of state had retreated back into one of her more customary traveling pantsuits, while Suu Kyi dazzled in a dark cyan blouse and striped longyi.

Campaigning for this year’s by-election, Suu Kyi began engaging with her adoring public face to face. As she journeyed the country, her choices of color, design and styles were always eye-catching and did not escape the covetous gaze of other Burmese women.

In Sagaing, she wooed crowds in a sky-blue blouse and navy longyi, while in Bee Lin, Mon State, she sported a baby-pink anyi and maroon longyi combination.

In Pathein, in the Irrawaddy delta, she looked professional but chic in a jade-green outfit which was embroidered with a floral pattern.

NLD supporters in Meik Hti La were arguably treated to The Lady’s most enchanting appearance when she turned up wearing a light cyan anyi and a traditional handwoven cheik longyi.

But perhaps her most captivating look was saved for the capital, Naypyidaw, when on March 6 Suu Kyi arrived to meet officials wearing a trendy ethnic outfit—a stunning red blouse and carmine jacket. She carried a red pathein (parasol) and rounded off the look with a striped ethnic scarf, simple pearl earrings and white flowers in her hair. “Simply stunning,” was how one onlooker described her entrance.

If that crimson and carmine ensemble was too much for most women to follow, the peach-colored anyi she donned in Phya Pone was certainly more within range. In fact, the peach blouse has since been adapted into the style of the cotton tunic worn in rural parts of Burma, known in Burmese as a pin ni, and it has become something of an NLD uniform among youth members.

“Before, there was not much demand for pin ni,” said a store owner at Bogyoke Aung San Market. “But now, girls are wearing the peach tunics while the boys have started wearing peach-colored tunic jackets [pin ni taik pon].”

Rangoon tailors say that many clients come into their shops with pictures of Suu Kyi cut out of magazines, asking for made-to-measure designs.

“In fact, we collect all the pictures of Daw Suu, because some customers simply refer to the venue she was at when they request an outfit,” said a tailor from Sanchaung Township.

Several teenagers in the former capital admitted their dress sense had been influenced by the 66-year-old politician.

“I used to only wear traditional dress when I went with my family to the monastery or to a religious ceremony,” said Yu Yu, 20. “Normally I would wear a tight skirt with a Western style shirt. But now, since I’ve grown to appreciate the simple tastes of a’mae [Mother] Suu, I have started to wear a pin ni or a traditional anyi and longyi again.”

The sudden sway toward traditional Burmese costume is nothing less than a counter-revolution in fashion, said a Rangoon socialite. “No sooner had teenage girls in Burma broken free and started wearing Western styles—denim shorts, spaghetti-strap t-shirts and mini skirts—then the trend reversed back to old-fashioned costumes which reflect our heritage.”

As a trend-setter, Suu Kyi still has a way to go though; advertisements on TV, billboards and in magazines continue to depict seductive girls in skimpy attire, and the nation’s celebrities, for the most part, are still sexy pop stars and actresses.

“I’m afraid the longyi-wearing tradition is fading away—the same way it did over the last generation in Thailand,” said a 25-year-old graphic designer.

“But I wish Burmese girls would follow the example of Daw Suu,” she added quickly. “The way she dresses and comports herself is a testimony to the beauty of Burmese women.”

In the meantime, at least one leading fashion designer in Rangoon says she expects Suu Kyi to reign as a “fashion diva” for some time to come.

“All the outfits she wears are neat and stylish, and completely suit her,” she said. “Her choice of colors and her slim build help accentuate the fabrics. More importantly, she uses simple cottons, which are inexpensive and ideal for our climate.”