Modest Swimwear Makes Big Waves

Conservative is the new cute

If you visited the beach this summer, no doubt you saw plenty of women letting it all hang out — from Brazilian bikinis to the “slashtini” (bathing suit with cutouts) — and leaving very little to the imagination.

But just when you thought bathing suits couldn’t get any raunchier, there’s a new, refreshing trend that’s making waves: modest swimwear.

What an idea! So, is it silly, sexy — prudish, practical? We want to know. We talked to Wendy Shalit, the author of the classic A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue,” to better understand the trend.

Q: Why are these suits so popular suddenly? Why now?

WS: It’s interesting because not long ago, modest bathing suits were the punchline of jokes all over the blogosphere, but now they’ve recently been “discovered” in the mainstream media as this dazzling new specialty item. Well, they’ve been here all along but now that they’re offered up in so many new colors and styles, suits with more coverage are more appealing than ever.

Once the punchline of jokes all over the blogosphere, modest swimwear has been “discovered” in the mainstream media.

Q: What about the idea that modest swimwear is primarily for overweight women who don’t look their best in a regular swimsuit?

WS: That may have been the association people had back when modest swimwear wasn’t anything special, design-wise, and women wore it out of necessity, but now increasing numbers of women of all body types are choosing modest swimwear just because they like how it looks. More significantly, they enjoy dressing for their own comfort and style, as opposed to feeling pressured to always present themselves in a manner appealing to men.

Q: Are the founders of the companies behind modest swimwear all Orthodox Jews?

WS: Not all of them. There’s Jessica Rey’s swimwear line, which was inspired by Audrey Hepburn, but even the Orthodox CEOs aren’t necessarily what you would expect. Yardena Ganem, who started Sea Secret in Jerusalem nine years ago, told me that she was inspired after her baby was born three months prematurely, and it was during her long hospital stay that she made a resolution to make her innovative suits.

Now that the suits are out there, consumers from a wide-range of backgrounds can enjoy them, and actually the Jewish Week recently reported that runways at the 11th annual Swim Week in Miami Beach showcased sleeves as a trend. So now it’s become a mainstream thing.

Q: What if someone looks at UndercoverWaterwear, AquaModesta and HydroChic and nothing particularly speaks to them?

WS: Well, those are just the most popular companies, but ModLi is featuring some cute modest swim combos that are a bit different this season. And as I just mentioned, there is also Sea Secret, which is less well-known in North America but ships a lot of high-quality suits. But ultimately fashion is a very individual thing, of course.

If modest swimwear isn’t for you, then fine — but why the need to vilify women who do love it?

The key is, if modest swimwear doesn’t speak to someone, then why the need to vilify women who do love it? There’s always invariably someone who will cherry-pick the most atrocious, dowdy suit, and then feature it in a blog as if it typifies the movement and everyone will then pile on and make fun of all women who choose modesty. I think that’s unfair.

We talk all the time as a society about the dangers of “slut-shaming,” but really there’s much more modesty-shaming that goes on as far as I’m concerned. The only difference is that it’s socially acceptable and considered “cool” to publicly shame women who choose modesty. These are often people who would otherwise consider themselves “pro-choice,” yet they get so worked up over the existence of modest swimwear, I think it’s kind of hilarious. At the end of the day, we didn’t kill a lion here — it’s just a suit.

We talk all the time about the dangers of “slut-shaming,” but really there’s much more modesty-shaming.

Q: If I wear one of these suits, am I going to be hot — as in temperature?

WS: It’s funny you’re asking that because recently two sisters in Ontario, where I now live, spoke out about their right to go topless on a bike ride because they were so “hot.” Given that it was 9 p.m. at the time, I’m a little skeptical of that claim. But regardless, when it’s extremely hot, I’ve never found that exposing all your skin directly to the sun is a cooling proposition.

Many people find it far easier to cover with a thin fabric than to continually slather on the sunblock, especially now in our age of skin-cancer awareness. The thing to avoid is being in all-black, because black (as you no doubt already know) absorbs heat. When you get into the water you’ll feel like you would in any suit, which is fantastic — perhaps even more so, since during water sports, you now don’t have to worry about readjusting straps or the dreaded “pop-out.”

Q: If I wear one of these suits, will everyone stare at me? Tell me the truth.

WS: Men will either ignore you or speak to you normally, just as if you were wearing regular clothes. You won’t feel like you’re making a “spectacle” of yourself, that’s for sure, and men definitely won’t be ogling you. But do be prepared. Expect women to come up to you and ask you where you bought your suit. Whenever I wear one of my suits I get between two-five women asking me where they can buy theirs. Really, I should be getting a commission!

Q: Do I have to wear the funny head coverings that often come with the suits?

WS: Those head coverings are geared to married Orthodox Jewish women, so no. It’s not like if you don’t wear one of the pieces, the whole suit will explode. It’s mix and match like any fashion item — some of them are cute, some you’ll recoil from. It’s all about your own personal style and finding what works for you.

Q: What about those who say that modest bathing suits promote a sexual double standard against women?

WS: There will always be people who see everything through an ideological lens, but if you consider the origins of these particular suits and the fact that Orthodox Jewish men are generally discouraged from going to mixed beaches at all, raised to “guard their eyes” and to not look at unclothed women other than their wives — if anything, I would say that the men are more restricted. But if you want to wait for all men in general society to put on striped retro suits from the turn of the century, then good luck to you. I personally feel that it makes more sense to decide what’s best for me without always looking over my shoulder to see what everyone else is doing.

Q: Don’t the ones with skirts float up when you swim?

WS: The skirted suits generally come with hidden snaps that you can snap down and secure, but I never actually use them because of the shape of the swimdress. I don’t find them to be “floaty” in the water. I don’t know — maybe it’s because I’m a fast swimmer.

Q: OK, I really do want to try one of these suits, but how do I make the leap to actually putting one on?

WS: The best way to transition to one of these suits is to think of them more broadly, as activewear that just happens to be able to get wet. The skirts are short enough that, coupled with the leggings, you can basically do anything in them — surfing, biking, you name it.

Yesterday, I wore my Sea Secret Blue Diago to the Toronto Zoo as I planned to take my girls to their fabulous Splash pad, and while other moms hung back on the benches, some even frowning if they were splashed or their cellphones were sprayed, I got to splash around with my girls and really have fun, which was especially good as I was by myself with a 2- and 4-year old, and I definitely would not have felt great about hanging back passively as they ran about in different directions and disappeared behind strangers’ backs.

Q: Can we actually see you in the suit?

WS: Absolutely, but for that you have to come to Toronto and visit!

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