As women of all backgrounds become more attuned to modesty, summer’s hottest beachwear may very well become more covered
When Halima Aden became the first model to be featured in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition wearing a hijab and modest swimwear earlier this year, it was heralded as an avant-garde move towards a more inclusive fashion industry. Yet, barely three years ago, armed police forced a woman to remove some of her clothing on a beach in southern France, where local authorities had banned the modest swimsuit. Decried by the French prime minister Manuel Valls as a symbol of the “enslavement of women,” the burkini instantly became a battleground for feminists, politicians, and misogynists alike to debate if it was indeed an affront to French secularism.
Whether it concerns pants that were once regarded as a feminist symbol, or the repressive Victorian corset, the regulation of women’s sartorial choices has a long, fraught history – especially in France. When the bikini made its debut in Paris in 1946, it was considered so morally provocative that French designer Louis Réard – who coined the name after the atoll used as a testing ground for the atomic bomb – found only exotic dancers to model the two-piece costume. Its purpose: to allow for better tanning. In 1950s Algeria, the moral pendulum swung from criticizing the bikini as too immodest, to disparaging an excess of modesty such that French forces conducted public unveiling ceremonies to “liberate” Algerian women from the veil. This colonial practice was revived when Nice banned the burkini from its beaches.
The ban came a month after the city was hit by a terrorist attack leaving 86 victims dead, and many protesters of the ban raised the point that clothing was being punished. It sparked an international outcry, prompting activists in London to create a faux-beach outside the French embassy in protest. France’s highest administrative court eventually struck down the ban. In a sheer twist of irony, the 2016 ban catapulted the innocuous swimsuit onto the radar of consumers across the world. Once forced to choose between wearing a full-body diving suit or a random assemblage of non-water resistant clothing, women were now given access to a plethora of modest swimwear designs.
Inspired by her niece, who was playing netball while wearing the hijab, Lebanese-Australian designer Aheda Zanetti created and trademarked the burkini in 2004. Her aim was to empower Muslim women and encourage their participation in sport by designing clothing in accordance with the Islamic principle of modesty – one that, incidentally, applies to men and women. “Modesty is not a rude word anymore,” says Zanetti. “The French ban and media frenzy in 2016 increased our sales enormously. It opened many doors for other brands to take on modesty fashion and make it their own.” It is not about religion, but teaching children to swim, she has said.
One brand revolutionizing the modest swimwear market is Lyra Swimwear, founded by Ikram Zein in 2017. Zein creates various silhouettes with minimalist designs influenced by classic Hollywood and Moroccan styles. She used lightweight, quick-dry, UV-protective Italian fabric for its SS19 collection. “I wanted to create something that would combine style, versatility, and practicality, without compromising on coverage and quality,” she comments.
Now embraced by women from all backgrounds for its sun-protection benefits, modest swimwear has transcended its original status as religious attire. Resident aesthetic doctor at The Wellness Clinic in Harrods in London, Dr Marwa Ali, says, “People are becoming more aware of the long-term harmful effects of UV radiation on the skin. Sun exposure not only increases the risk of skin cancer but also significantly accelerates the rate of ageing.” Indeed, UK TV personality Nigella Lawson has been photographed in a burkini on the beaches of Australia, as have Madonna – not the first proponent for modesty – Nicole Kidman, and Jennifer Lopez.
In Eastern Asia, where pale skin is seen as a beauty ideal, burkinis are often the swimsuit of choice. Equally desired is the facekini, a skin-tight elastic facemask covering the entire face and neck with holes for the eyes, nostrils, and mouth, and sometimes a ponytail. It was created by Zhang Shifan in 2007 to protect wearers against jellyfish bites.
Defying presumptions, modest swimwear is by no means all-black. Italian brand Munamer, founded in 2016 by Chiara Taffarello, combines Italian fashion and modest swimwear aesthetics with bold floral, geometric, and tropical leaf prints for its SS19 collection. Inspired by modest styles during a trip to Pakistan, Taffarello created a brand for “sophisticated women looking for something unique to express their personality, without compromising their culture and origins.”
Modest swimwear is now representative of dress beyond religion, having forayed into the realm of preventative physical health and on-trend fashion. It is a garment governed by choice whereby women decide to privatize their bodies for personal reasons. Moreover, when pictured alongside bikinis and other beachwear, it is perhaps bringing people one step closer to that all too often out-of-reach French ideal ofliberté, égalité, fraternité.
Originally published in the July/August 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia