Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Modern Burmese Woman and the Politics of Fashion in Colonial Burma

  • Chie Ikeya

In the mid-1930s, criticisms of modern women's habits, clothing, and hairstyles exploded in the Burmese popular press, showing that “modern fashion” made a man no less virtuous and patriotic but rendered a woman immoral and unpatriotic. This article examines the nature of these criticisms and their motivations, and reveals that the controversy over the dress and comportment of modern women was a complex and multifaceted phenomenon sustained by irreducibly plural interests. It argues that neither the appeal for traditionalism and national sufficiency in the face of multiple modern and colonial temptations, nor the changing tides of Burmese nationalist movements sufficiently explain the preoccupation with modern women's fashion, and suggests that the discourse on modern women needs to be analyzed as stemming from a profound unsettling of existing notions of masculinity and femininity, and its effect on relations between the sexes.

Hide All




The Guardian

Myanmar Alin

Ngan Hta Lawka

The Screen Show Weekly



Burma, Government of. 1928. Report of an Enquiry into the Standard and Cost of Living of the Working Classes in Rangoon. Rangoon: Labor Statistics Bureau.
Committee, Riot Inquiry. 1939. Final Report of the Riot Inquiry Committee. Rangoon: Office of the Superintendent Government Printing and Stationery.
“Confidential Memo: Burmese Daily Newspapers.” 1946. In Burmese Press (1938–47).
Cowen, John. 1916. “Public Prostitution in Rangoon: Report to the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene on Brothel-Keeping, Prostitution, Segregation and Immoral Conditions in Rangoon and Other Towns and Stations in Burma.” Rangoon Brothels/Prostitution in Rangoon.
India, Census Commissioner of. 1923. Census of India, 1921. Vol. X (Burma). Rangoon: Office of the Superintendent Government Printing and Stationery.
India, Census Commissioner of. 1933. Census of India, 1931: Part One. Vol. XI (Burma). Rangoon: Office of the Superintendent Government Printing and Stationery.
Adas, Michael. 1974. The Burma Delta: Economic Development and Social Change on an Asian Rice Frontier, 18521941. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Allott, Anna. 1991. Introduction to Not Out of Hate: A Novel of Burma, by Lay, Ma Ma. Trans. Aung-Thwin, Margaret. Athens: Ohio University, Center for International Studies.
de Alwis, Malathi. 1999. “‘Respectability,’ ‘Modernity’ and the Policing of ‘Culture’ in Colonial Ceylon.” In Gender, Sexuality and Colonial Modernities, ed. Antoinette Burton, , 177–92. London: Routledge.
Amar. 1936. “Tuí payoga” [Our practices]. Myanmar Alin, New Year's special edition, 9.
Andaya, Barbara. 2002. “Localising the Universal: Women, Motherhood and the Appeal of Early Theravada Buddhism.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 33 (1): 130.
Andrus, J. Russell. 1948. Burmese Economic Life. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Atkinson, Jane Monnig, and Shelly, Errington. 1990. Power and Difference: Gender in Island Southeast Asia. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Aung San Suu, Kyi. 1987. “Socio-Political Currents in Burmese Literature, 1910–1940.” In Burma and Japan: Basic Studies on Their Cultural and Social Structure, 6583. Tokyo: Burma Research Group.
Aung San Suu, Kyi. 1990. Burma and India: Some Aspects of Intellectual Life Under Colonialism. New Delhi: Indian Institute of Advanced Study in association with Allied Publishers.
Aung-Thwin, Maitrii. 2003. “Genealogy of a Rebellion Narrative: Law, Ethnology and Culture in Colonial Burma.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 34 (3): 393419.
Auzam, Albert Ainley. 1938. “If Wives Should Receive Salaries!Ngan Hta Lawka 24 (163): 308.
Aye Aye, Mu. 1981. “Mran‘ mā´ lvat‘ lap‘ re″ krui″ pam‘ mhu tvaṅ‘pā vaṅ‘so a myui″ sa mī ″ myā″ e* kanda (1919–1948)” [The role of women in Burma's struggle for independence, 1919–1948]. Master's thesis, Yangon University.
Aye, Hlaing. 1964. A Study of Economic Development of Burma, 18701940. Rangoon: Department of Economics, University of Rangoon.
Barlow, Tani E. 1994. “Theorizing Woman: Funü, Guojia, Jiating.” In Body, Subject, and Power in China, ed. Angela, Zito and Barlow, Tani E, 253–89. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Barlow, Tani E., et al. . 2006. “The Modern Girl around the World: A Research Agenda and Preliminary Findings.” Gender and History 17 (2): 245–94.
Barmé, Scott. 2002. Woman, Man, Bangkok: Love, Sex, and Popular Culture in Thailand. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.
Bayly, Christopher. 1986. “The Origins of Swadeshi (Home Industry): Cloth and Indian Society, 1700–1930.” In The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun, Appadurai, 285322. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lee Bernstein, Gail, ed. 1991. Recreating Japanese Women, 16001945. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Bingham, Adrian. 2004. Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Interwar Britain. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Bo, Min. 1927. “Kālasā″ myak‘ luṁ″ nhuṅ‘´ aṅkyī pā bhvaí le″ khyui″” [Four-stanza verse on the sheer blouse and young men's eyes]. Bandoola, October.
Brown, Ian. 2005. A Colonial Economy in Crisis: Burma's Rice Cultivators and the World Depression of the 1930s. London: Routledge Curzon.
Chatterjee, Partha. 1993. The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Chen, Yi-Sein. 1966. “The Chinese in Rangoon during the 18th and 19th Centuries.” Artibus Asiae 23:107–11.
Cohn, Bernard. 1996. “Cloth, Clothes, and Colonialism: India in the Nineteenth Century.” In Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge, by Bernard, Cohn, 106–62. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Dhammasami, Khammai. 2004. “Between Idealism and Pragmatism: A Study of Monastic Education in Burma and Thailand from the Seventeenth Century to the Present.” PhD diss., St. Anne's College, Oxford University.
Edwards, Louise. 2000. “Policing the Modern Woman in Republican China.” Modern China 26 (2): 115–47.
Furnivall, J. S. 1956. An Introduction to the Political Economy of Burma. 3rd ed.Rangoon: Peoples’ Literature Committee and House.
Furnivall, J. S. 1991. The Fashioning of Leviathan: the Beginnings of British Rule in Burma. Canberra: Economic History of Southeast Asia Project and Thai-Yunnan Project.
Göle, Nilüfer. 1996. The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Gravers, Mikael. 1999. Nationalism as Political Paranoia in Burma: An Essay on the Historical Practice of Power. 2nd ed.Richmond: Curzon.
Herbert, Patricia M. 1982. The Hsaya San Rebellion (1930–1932) Reappraised. London: Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books, British Library.
Hla, Pe. 1968. “The Rise of Popular Literature in Burma.” Journal of Burma Research Society 51 (2): 123–44.
, H. M. 1936. “The Age of Criticism in Burma.” Ngan Hta Lawka 21 (132): 566.
Ikeya, Chie. Forthcoming. “Modern Wives, Hygienic Mothers: ‘Secular’ Education, Popular Press, and the Discourse of Domesticity in Twentieth Century Colonial Burma.” In Medicine in Myanmar: The Colonial Era, ed. Monique, Skidmore.Copenhagen: NIAS Press.
Kawanami, Hiroko. 2000. “Patterns of Renunciation: The Changing World of Burmese Nuns.” In Women's Buddhism, Buddhism's Women: Tradition, Revision, Renewal, ed. Findly, E. B., 159–71. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
Keyes, Charles F. 1984. “Mother or Mistress but Never a Monk: Buddhist Notions of Female Gender in Rural Thailand.” American Ethnologist 11 (2): 223–41.
Khin Maung, Htun. 1974. Mran‘ mā gyānay‘ samuiṅ‘ ″ (1919–1941) [A history of Burmese journals, 1919–1941]. Yangon: U Chit Aung.
Khin Myo, Chit. 1974. “Women in Buddhism.” The Guardian 21 (8): 812.
Kirsch, Thomas A. 1985. “Text and Context: Buddhist Sex Roles/Culture of Gender Revisited.” American Ethnologist 12 (2): 302–20.
Koop, John Clement. 1960. The Eurasian Population in Burma. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University, Southeast Asia Studies.
Kyan, . 1978. “A myui″ sa mī″ mrā nhaṅ‘´ cā ṅay‘ jaṅ‘ ″ loka.” In Cā nay‘ jaṅ‘samuiṅ‘ ″ cā tam‘ ″ myā″ [Women and the world of journalism]. Yangon: Sabei Beikman.
Ma, Lay. 1940. “Yok'yā″ thvé raí a tve″ a khay hā aok‘ kya lha khye″ ka lā″” [The deteriorating state of male mentality]. Gyanaygyaw, January, 1518.
Maung, Maung. 1980. From Sangha to Laity: Nationalist Movements of Burma, 1920–1940. New Delhi: Manohar.
Maxim, Sarah Heminway. 1992. “The Resemblance in External Appearance: The Colonial Project in Kuala Lumpur and Rangoon.” PhD diss., Cornell University.
Mendelson, E. Michael. 1975. Sangha and State in Burma: A Study of Monastic Sectarianism and Leadership. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Monin, P. 1940. “Kyvan‘up‘´ min‘″ ma kui pro me pā” [Please tell my wife]. Thuriya 23 (2): 5560.
Mya, Gale. 1934. “Min‘″ ma myā nhan‘´ pru pran re″” [Women and reforms]. Toetetyei: 5: 31.
Nwe Nwe, Myint. 1992. “Gantha loka cā cu cā raṅ‘″ (1938–1941)” [Ngan Hta Lawka magazine index, 1938–1941]. Master's thesis, Yangon University.
Nemoto, Kei. 2000. “The Concepts of Dobama (‘Our Burma’) and Thudo-Bama (‘Their Burma’) in Burmese Nationalism, 1930–1948.” Journal of Burma Studies 5:116.
Nordholt, Henk Schulte. 1997. Outward Appearances: Dressing State and Society in Indonesia. Leiden: KITLV Press.
O'Connor, Richard A. 1983. A Theory of Indigenous Southeast Asian Urbanism. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Peleggi, Maurizio. 2002. Lords of Things: The Fashioning of the Siamese Monarchy's Modern Image. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.
Roces, Mina. 2005. “Gender, Nation and the Politics of Dress in Twentieth-Century Philippines. Gender and History 17 (2): 354–77.
Sato, Barbara Hamill. 2003. The New Japanese Woman: Modernity, Media, and Women in Interwar Japan, Asia-Pacific. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Saw Moun, Nyin. 1976. Ba mā a myui″ sa mī″ [Burmese women]. Yangon: Thiha Poun Hneik Htaik.
Shwe Khaing, Thar. 1951. Chaṅ‘yaṅ‘thui″ phvaí mhu [Burmese clothes and hairdos]. Mandalay: Kyi Pwa Yei.
Silverberg, Miriam. 1991. “The Modern Girl as Militant.” In Recreating Japanese Women, 1600–1945, ed. Gail Lee, Bernstein, 239–66. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Singh, Surendra Prasad. 1980. Growth of Nationalism in Burma, 1900–1942. Calcutta: Firma KLM.
Smith, Donald Eugene. 1965. Religion and Politics in Burma. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Stevens, Sarah E. 2003. “Figuring Modernity: The New Woman and the Modern Girl in Republican China.” NWSA Journal 15 (3): 82103.
Tarlo, Emma. 1996. Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Taylor, Jean Gelman. 1997. “Costume and Gender in Colonial Java, 1800–1940.” In Outward Appearances: Dressing State and Society in Indonesia, ed. Henk Schulte, Nordholt, 85116. Leiden: KITLV Press.
Taylor, Robert. 1987. The State in Burma. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.
Trivedi, Lisa N. 2003. “Visually Mapping the ‘Nation’: Swadeshi Politics in Nationalist India, 1920–1930.” Journal of Asian Studies 62 (1): 1141.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Journal of Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-9118
  • EISSN: 1752-0401
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-asian-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed