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Burkinis And Bikinis Have More In Common Than Just Being Beachwear

13/09/2016 12:00 PM IST | Updated 14/09/2016 9:09 AM IST
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On a cold, windy day at the beach, there's nothing better to keep warm in than a pair of stylish high-denier tights matched with a t-shirt and a cool Nefertiti head wrap.

Such an ensemble can be picked from Marks & Spencer or House of Fraser stores. Both brands launched their burkini collections last year, catering to the Islamic fashion market (estimated to be word more than $300 billion by 2018) and also for those who wish protection from weather on the beach. The ensemble covers the body with the exception of the face, hands and feet; it's made in light-weight swimwear material that dries off easily in case you fancy a plunge.

Dress and society are symbiotic at all times, symptomatic at worst. But dress can be neither the problem nor the solution to an important political or social challenge.

The inventor of the burkini, Australian designer Aheda Zanetti endorses the burkini for anyone who wants to cover up -- for any reason -- while on the beach. Lifeguards and skin cancer survivors around the world are on her grand fan list. Zanetti's celebrated non-Muslim clients such as British chef Nigella Lawson wear the burkini as an expression of their creativity. Londoner Kausar Sacranie and the Paris-based Brazilian designer Vanessa Lourenco make Burkinis too, and not just for Muslims. Lourenco has experimented with fuchsia and bright shades of blue which are quite cool. The shape and fit of the burkinis on offer by these brands are all similar fare though. They are roomy, dropping limply to an odd mid-thigh length. And anyway none of them hold a candle to the chic of the two-piece burkini from the recently launched Haute Elan fashion portal. Giving a retro twist to the mini-dress with three-quarter sleeves, Haute Elan matches the top with slim-fit knee-length pants and a matching hat. Also on offer is a one-piece bodysuit in black of three-quarter length with a front zipper, made entirely of AcquaZero water repellent fabric. The hat is made of lightweight swimsuit fabric with a sun-protection visor and chic wraparound ties that have a silken feel.

Ironically, Haute Elan's burkini collection would have been considered far too scandalous a century ago in Europe or in the US. They would have been accused of being far too revealing of bare skin. In France, women bathed in ankle-length garments at that time. At best they wore bloomers that showed a flash of calf. Culture demanded women to be covered up in loose clothing while swimming. In Boston, Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested in 1907 for wearing a figure-hugging one-piece ankle length swimsuit.

When the bikini was invented in July 1946 by a car engineer, Frenchman Louis Réard, he was lambasted for being devil enough to corrupt European culture with a garment that bared too much skin. Réard's invention triggered a media storm in France and internationally. "It is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would even wear such a thing," wrote the Modern Girl magazine in 1957 on the bikini. The bikini was immediately banned in the Catholic countries of Italy, Spain, Portugal, as well as in Australia and Belgium. Girls needed to be decent, they admonished. In order to do so they had to be properly covered up in clothes on the beach and when they swam, thus upholding the religious and cultural traditions of Europe.

Depending on the time, context and location, the same attire can be interpreted differently. When I moved to live in India two years ago, after living my entire adult life all over the world, I chose to slightly adapt my dress to what was acceptable to the society in which I lived in. But I remember having tweaked my style even when I lived in France, the US, China and Egypt. In each place I wore exactly what resonated with who I was as an individual, but that changed according to the context of time and place. Of course, dress and society are symbiotic at all times, symptomatic at worst. But dress can be neither the problem nor the solution to an important political or social challenge.

There is a commonality between a woman who chooses to cover up and a woman who does not -- each choice is an expression of her free will.

Sixty years later France has banned the burkini off its beaches this summer. In Austria, some politicians have called for a ban on full-body veils. Belgium banned the niqab and it is forbidden to wear the burkini in many municipal swimming pools, but not at the beach. In Germany, the conservatives want a partial ban on the face veil.

While in Nice, which recently suffered a ghastly attack by an ISIS supporter, the burkini ban was overturned, mayors in some 20 coastal towns are refusing to comply. These local governments banned swimsuits that have a "connotation contrary to the principle of secularism." It's ironic given that Zanetti had invented the burkini to allow all women to participate freely in Western sports activities without being forced to show skin. Freedom is subjective.

During the years I was living in Paris, the French government had banned wearing religious symbols and clothing -- including crosses, kippah, and Islamic headscarves -- from public schools in 2004. It had much to do with the rise of the far-right Front National party and the increased concerns about immigration. Attire is used as a political battleground.

Meanwhile, despite all the controversy raging around modest beachwear, Zanetti has seen a rise in burkini sales, particularly in Europe, since the ban. After the French ban, the M&S burkini collection has sold out as well. There must be larger issues for politicians to solve so that the world is a better place to live in for all of us.

The frequent attacks on attire are not part of any solution. But they are symptomatic of a tendency of political, social, or religious institutions to encroach upon individual freedom as a knee-jerk reaction to search for the needle only where the light is. There is a commonality between a woman who chooses to cover up and a woman who does not -- each choice is an expression of her free will. An encroachment on this freedom in both cases is regressive. It stifles our basic human instinct to be free.

Memento Mori by Pablo Bartholomew

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