Longyi, a Lyric

(Object is an essay series exploring the meaning of clothes, jewelry, make-up, and accessories.)

The author in Burma. Photograph by David Rohlfing.

The author in Burma. Photograph by David Rohlfing.

It is not a skirt.

And if it is a skirt, what of it? The Western gaze can be narrow and righteous.

I consider the longyi a masculine garment: the way it’s anchored in a bundle up front, advertising its bulk. Like a flower over the loin.

But I also love how it slims the hips, hugs them not unlike a corset, although it is not as binding or restrictive. Rather, I find the longyi freeing, enabling breathing room. It sits below the waist, elongating the torso. Actually, it isn’t like a corset at all.

In Burma, where it is traditionally worn, my husband and I wore the longyi, a cylindrical cloth that stretches to the feet, held in place around the waist by folding fabric over without a knot. It gained popularity in Burma during British colonial rule. It is similar to the Indian lungi and the Malay sarong.

I’d slipped into skirts before, when I was circumcised at age twelve in the Philippines. A skirt—my mother’s or my sisters’—kept the fresh wound clean and aerated for faster healing without sticking to fabric. Protection and shield, a skirt provided the proper exposure.

In Burma, David, my husband, selected a modest dark purple fabric for his longyi. I chose a thin-lined, tiny-squared plaid with shades of the oranges and browns of leopard skin. The sellers showed us how one needed to put one’s lower arms into it, pulling the opposing sides of the sewn cylinder, gathering the fabric, then crisscrossing the two sides as if folding a blanket fresh out of the dryer.

Throughout the Burmese day, men tie, untie and retie their longyi. A ritual of social propriety. A dance between loosening concealment and the body.

Author and his husband in Bagan

Author and his husband in Bagan

We were touring Bagan, an inland city in the western Mandalay region where over 2,200 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries survived from the 11th and 13th centuries, the plains dotted with them. They remained sacred, active places of worship. Although the Burmese are tolerant of tourists wearing inappropriate clothing, we still received occasional disapproving stares, especially from elders.

At the time of our visit in June 2015, Burma had only recently opened up to tourism, and there were a handful of places foreigners were allowed. Yet many do cater to tourists. To be a tourist is to be swaddled, like an infant which makes demands and is also subjected to the demands of others.

As Westerners conspicuously adorned in traditional garb, were we being respectful?

With my difficulties in tying the longyi—I’m equally a dunce at folding fitted sheets—the Burmese men of Bagan were more than happy to help. At a vegetarian restaurant, Be Kind to Animals The Moon, a willing young man—who spoke English accented with a curious mix of British clip and Southern drawl—assisted me. Inside, I burst into C.P. Cavafy: “At beauty I have gazed so much/that my vision is filled with it./The body lines. Red lips. Limbs made for pleasure.” Or “this aesthete of a boy with his blood so fresh and hot.”

CC Image courtesy of Kaj17 on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of Kaj17 on Flickr

Due to the infernal heat, men lifted up their longyis as they walked or sat, exposing their toned legs. Or found relief by tucking the lower portion at the top by bunching it in front then passing it up between the legs around back to the waist.  

Tucking leads my mind to drag.

On my 30th birthday, I wore a borrowed Scottish wool kilt, red plaid and heavy, suited for the early December chill. Good friends and I feasted on Mario Batali’s Roman fare in Greenwich Village. In queue for the bathroom, I was astounded when the man wearing a suit in front of me asked if I was wearing anything underneath. Then the same cavalier query was uttered repeatedly as we caroused into the cosmopolitan night. What compelled people to ask outright about my undergarment, or lack thereof? I was clearly not Scottish, so were they in on a preconceived joke? Was I wearing a costume? Was I guilty of appropriating?

The kilt was kitsch to me, partly, yes, but I’d worn it with want and admiration. How warm it made me feel. How free and unconventional. But also, I was then in a state of self-discovery and examination, having recently come out as gay. The kilt acted as an in-between: masculine with its burly feel and heft, almost like an animal’s pelt. Yet it was, still, a kind of skirt. Perhaps I was trying to fuse two sides of me, which of course were not halves at all. Being gay is a totality of self.

On a motorbike, the longyi funneled cool air. It fluttered like wings, a sense of flight.

Burmese men carried them slung on their lower arms, protrusion of larval fabric, elongated folded skin. Or serpentine over their shoulders, like a sash.

While my husband was touring a temple, I slipped out to use the bathroom. Outside the stall, I was having difficulty re-tying my longyi. Three young men stopped to help me. Limbs everywhere. One stood behind me, the other faced me, while the third watched. It was the friendliest, most chaste orgy, but sexually charged nonetheless. I didn’t tell my husband until two days later; it felt as illicit as a confession.

I stood, arms raised in the air. Brown arms circled my waist, weaving. From the back, groping and tightening at the erogenous torso. I had become his body. We comprised of three rings, if not four, with the electric charge around us. He wound the longyi tightly, then plunged fabric down to the loin. Tucked in the front. Fluffed the flower. I surrendered.

(Joseph O. Legaspi, a 2015 Fulbright fellow, is the author of Imago and an upcoming as-yet-untitled collection, and two chapbooks: Aviary, Bestiary and Subways. He resides in Queens, NY.)