How Cultural Tradition Shapes Fashion Trends in Economically Developing Nations
by Sequoia Beaver • Sep 24, 2020 | STYLE

Emergent nations often have a unique sense of culture and a rich history of food, fashion, and customs. Burma, or Myanmar, is widely considered the poorest nation in the world but they have a deep universal sense of history and culture that isn’t seen in more western, wealthier countries such as the US. Nepal, another country that has a low Gross Domestic Product per capita, is deeply connected to their cultural heritage and this is evident in their modern fashion trends. Southern Asia is full of developing countries that are largely untouched by Western culture and society compared to the rest of the world. The beauty of this is a remarkable preservation of culture and history that can be expressed through fashion.

The Burmese Longyi is one of the most common articles of clothing worn by both men and women today, and date back to centuries ago. The longyi looks similar to a long wrap skirt but is gender-neutral. The native population wearing this traditional garment daily is one of the most noticeable things about Burma, unlike most other Asian countries that only wear ceremonial or traditional clothing for special occasions. The citizens of Burma have been quoted in the Myanmar Times as saying that they are most comfortable in their Longyi. In the schools, where uniforms are mandated, women are expected to wear longyi, and men are expected to wear Paso or trousers. Paso is another word for a longyi that is worn by a male. The primary reason this traditional clothing has survived and even thrived is because of the deep connection to a common heritage that it provides for the citizens of a country that has had a highly tumultuous history.

Photo credit: Martin Callum – Flickr

Nepalese fashion is very similar today to what it was 300 years ago at the country’s formation. Practical for the climate and modest, traditional national male fashion (called  “Daura Suruwal” or “Labeda Suruwal”) is comprised of a light airy shirt called a Daura and loose pants referred to as a Suruwal or Salwar, accompanied by a headpiece. The shirt is fastened not by buttons or clasps, but by ties and the pants are flowy until reaching the ankles where they are fitted. Traditional female fashion (called  “Kurta Suruwal”) consists of loose pants, a long colorful shirt, and a thick, long scarf that is worn draped around the body, almost cape-like. Modern fashion hasn’t strayed much from this traditional loose silhouette. The only noticeable change is the addition of a vest to the Daura Suruwal, popularized by former Prime Minister Bir Shamsher Rana. It is worth noting that this clothing is not common across all of Nepal as Nepal is a hybrid nation that houses hundreds of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. The clothing detailed here however is what is considered the national costume. Nepal is slightly more westernized than Burma and this can be seen in the steady creep of European fashion trends into their society. As more Westernized people move to or visit Nepal they bring their fashion trends and culture with them.

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Southeastern Asia is a unique bubble of preservation. With the rise of globalization, which has been largely positive, one of the downsides is the loss of the individual and unique cultures that enriches our world. These cultural staples don’t belong in museums or stuffed in the backs of closets only to be brought out once a year. We should celebrate our individual cultures in an inclusive way instead of ostracizing fashion or looks that are different than our own. As I recount working with Burmese citizens for five years and spending a decent amount of time in Malaysia two years ago (Malaysia is another country that experiences a constant cultural revival of traditional fashion), I can say as a first-hand witness that their cultural fashion trends are not only practical and comfortable, they are beautiful and very different from anything we can really see here in the US. 

Written by
Sequoia Beaver
Contributing writer on lifestyle and sustainability.
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