“Touching on Burmese English usage, let us deal now with the ‘footwearing prohibited’ notice in all the pagodas and have done with it. Its literal interpretation is too old and stale a joke now to be even mildly funny. The expression is not, anyhow, more absurd than many expressions which have invaded our English tongue from America and the armed forces[*]. “You see,” a Burman said to me, wearily, “if we change it to a ‘footwear prohibited’, as the people who want to improve us are always urging us to, the people will think it’s a new rule which means that they mustn’t even carry their footwear. The people understand what it means – that the wearing of footwear is prohibited. If the highly educated among our own people have no objection to the expression, why should we mind what outsiders think? If it makes us look ridiculous perhaps it is not more ridiculous than the sight of Western people paddling round our pagodas in their socks, frightened to go barefoot.”
– Ethel Mannin, Land of the Crested Lion, 1955
The British were particularly petty regarding the wearing of shoes in pagoda grounds. At the height of the prudish Victorian obsession with propriety, they felt impossibly undermined by taking off their shoes, presumably even more so in front of their colonial subjects. Initially most visitors flat out refused to remove them. At first, the Burmese were tolerant of this, and non-believers were excused from doing so. As this tolerance wore thin, it became impossible to ignore the rule, and so many British visitors simply did not go to pagodas. Other nationalities were not so reserved. A lieutenant colonel of the Royal Army Medical Corps wrote in 1930 that other than military staff, “all visitors to the inside of the Pagoda have to proceed barefooted; few English people care to do this, but it is no deterrent to our American cousins, who come in swarms.”
Today, since Victorian modes of dress are long gone, the requirements for entry have got a little more complicated. Besides keeping up with the changing whims of fashion, the rules must also account for technology; drones have now been banned around most religious and major government buildings. We can probably pencil in a ban on jetpacks for 2030.
*words like dud, lousy and ‘a fair whack’