Blog post by Rachel Doran (’19)
On March 29, 1930 Miss Charity Carman embarked on her journey to Burma, now Myanmar, as a missionary for the American Baptist Church. Miss Carman came from a family of missionaries. Her brother, John S. Carman, a graduate of Cornell University’s medical school, served as a medical missionary in India for the American Baptist Church for forty years. While John’s work was focused in India, Charity spent her years in Burma working at the American Baptist Paku Carman School in Toungoo.
Charity collected various articles of Burmese clothing during her stay, which she later donated to the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection. Her donations include a tubular cotton skirt, an appliqued cotton coat, a headpiece, a headdress, two shoulder bags, and a complete Kachin woman’s ensemble.
The Kachin woman’s outfit is an example of traditional dress of the Kachin people who inhabit the Kachin Hills of northern Myanmar as well as bordering areas in China and India. Myanmar is an ethnically diverse nation made up of 135 nationally recognized distinct ethnic groups, which are then grouped into eight “major national ethnic races.” The Kachin people made up approximately 1.5 percent of the Myanmar population as of 2013 (Chandra 2013).
The ensemble Ms. Carman donated to our collection is comprised of a wrap skirt, an ornamented black velveteen jacket, anklets, and waisthoops. These garments and accessories make up the key components of Kachin traditional dress, which is similar today.
This sarong type skirt is known as a longyi and is worn by both men and women in this region. Shared styles of clothing like the longyi are indicative of gender equity in the Union of Myanmar today (Kennett). This particular longyi is made of black cotton and wool with an elaborate, brightly colored woven design. This textile was hand-loomed, most likely on a backstrap loom, which can take months to complete. Rev. O. Hanson, author of The Kachins: Their Customs and Traditions published by American Baptist Mission Press, noted that “the Kachin woman is second to none in Burma when is comes to artistic weaving and embroidery” (Hanson 1913: 48).
The black velveteen jacket is ornamented with silver engraved medallions that encircle the neckline and lay down the front of the jacket. The anklets are made of a brightly colored woven textile similar to that of the longyi. The waisthoops are made of black lacquered split bamboo.
The tradition of wearing waisthoops derives from local mythology. The hoops are said to represent an animal trap and are supposed to offer protection to the women who wear them. The hoops are traditionally made of silver and are quite heavy, but may also be made of the bamboo variety like the set in this ensemble. These hoops also serve the purpose of holding the wrapped waist of the longyi in place (Hanson 1913: 48).
The creation of the Triennial Convention in 1814 marked the beginning of American Baptist foreign missions in Burma. The American Baptist Chin mission “placed emphasis upon Christianity as a way of life, a lifestyle,” which included aspects of daily life including dress practices (Sakhong 2010: 249). Those involved with the mission saw it as a huge success, however it is clear the missionaries were also met with resistance. In History of the American Baptist Chin Mission, Dr. Ronald G. Taylor wrote, “With its adherents to the Buddhist faith and its many warlike tribes of animistic beliefs, Burma presented enormous challenges to American Baptist efforts to firmly establish Christianity during the decades that followed.” But by the time Miss Charity Carman arrived in 1930, missionaries had been working for over 100 years to “systematically plant the faith” (Johnson 1988: 5a). Throughout the course of my research I began questioning ethics of missionary work and quickly realized the issue is not black and white. Is it right to force one set of beliefs onto another population with their own unique customs, beliefs and traditions? Is it right to encroach on their territory and attempt to change their way of life? Missionaries in Burma in no way intended to cause harm. They believed they were doing God’s work and bettering the lives of the Burmese people. However, their attempts to supplant indigenous spiritual beliefs were paternalistic and sought to undermine unique cultural practices and ontological beliefs.
While considering the intentions and ultimate effects of missionary work in Burma, I began to wonder why so many missionaries collected clothing and other material artifacts representative of the ways of life they were trying to change. Were traditional garments collected by missionaries to document a pre-Christian past? Or, did the missionaries collect in a respectful manner to show appreciation of cultural difference? Either way, it is interesting to consider the fact that this style of traditional dress has endured and is still worn today. With all that the missionaries were able to change, why is the style of dress something that persisted? There is no clear and simple answer to any of these questions. While I will never know the intentions Miss Charity Carman had when collecting these items, I appreciate that her donation enabled me as a first-year university student to learn about dress in Myanmar, both past and present, and to begin to think critically about colonialism, missionaries and collecting practices.
Rachel Doran (’19) is a research assistant in the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection majoring in fashion design management. Rachel has always been interested in fashion and discovered her interest in historical fashion while working on costumes for her high school theater department. She enjoys exploring this interest through research in the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection.
Asian/Pacific Islander/American Association of Greater Rochester. Web. 11 May 2016.
Chandra, Puran. Burma: Past and Present: A Factbook. Delhi: Forward, 2013. Print.
“Charity Carman’s Story.” Family Search. Web. 11 May 2016.
Gravers, Mikael. Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Burma. Copenhagen S, Denmark: NIAS, 2007. Print.
Hanson, O. The Kachins, Their Customs and Traditions. Rangoon: American Baptist Mission, 1913. Print.
Johnson, Robert G. History of the American Baptist Chin Mission: A History of the Introduction of
Christianity into the Chin Hills of Burma by Missionaries of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society during the Years 1899 to 1966. Valley Forge, PA, U.S.A.: R.G. Johnson, 1988. Print.
Kennett, Frances. Ethnic Dress. New York: Facts on File, 1995. Print.
“Discover the Beautiful Colors of the Palaung.” MyanmarBurma.com. 27 Feb. 2013. Web. 11 May 2016.
Sakhong, Lian H. In Defence of Identity: The Ethnic Nationalities’ Struggle for Democracy, Human Rights, and Federalism in Burma : A Collection of Writings and Speeches. Bangkok: Orchid, 2010. Print.
The Proceedings of the Burma Baptist Missionary Conference. Burma Baptist Missionary Conference:
Forty-Second Annual Meeting, Burma, Rangoon. American Baptist Mission. Yale Library Images. Web. 11 May 2016.
“Dr. John S. Carman, 76, Retired Medical Missionary.” The Washington Post. 13 Dec. 1978. Web. 11 May
Wilcox, R. Turner. Folk and Festival Costume of the World. New York: Scribner, 1965. Print.