Why the burkini causes so much controversy

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Bikinis and burkinis

While string bikinis are fully acceptable in the West, the burkini - a full-body swimsuit - is the topic of heated debate. DW speaks to fashion theorist Barbara Vinken about this polemic garment.

DW: For some, the "burkini" - a whole-body swimsuit sometimes worn by Muslim women - is a symbol of the oppression of women. For others, it is an article of clothing that enables Muslim women to participate in a part of cultural life.  What is your opinion?

Euromaxx Videos | 06.07.2016

Barbara Vinken: I think the problem is that this battle over the veiling of women is raging in Europe or the West in general about how much and which parts of the female body may be shown. So of course the burkini is received in this way.

I watched the Olympic beach volley match in which the Egyptian team was completely covered up in burkinis. The other team, the German women's team, was all dressed in tiny bikinis. You can really pose the question as to why people have to play volleyball in a bikini at all. I think it's a very humorous way of reconsidering why we do what when.

How does the burkini fit into the development of swimwear in Germany?

The burkini did not evolve directly from swimwear, but more from sportswear. It was developed in Australia so that women of Islamic faith could become lifeguards. It's a classic sportswear piece. I look at the burkini as more like a Neoprene whole-body suit.

There is also a strong trend in Australia, which we also see in the US, to keep the sun off your skin. As a result, there is a tendency to bathe in clothes or a t-shirt. I think the burkini points more towards this direction. The idea that the sun is beautiful, that we can sit out in it, has pretty much come to an end. Many people no longer go in the sun, almost as if they have a phobia.

Read: Why do women hide their hair?

Read: The bikini celebrates its 70th birthday

What do you personally think of the burkini?

I don't have this sun phobia and I enjoy bathing in a bikini. I like that. But the burkini really doesn't bother me. It's all the same to me, honestly. I like what you see at the beach in France at the moment. There, no one has a burkini - they're really not that attractive. Instead, they sometimes have wide veil swimsuits - kind of like robes - and they go into the water in them. This is very poetic and it looks very nice.

How is the fashion tied to political debate?

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Frankreich Frau mit Burkini am Strand von Fort Mahon

French beaches, like here in Fort Mahon, have been a particular site of controversy

Fashion is really always political. I recently saw a fantastic picture from the 50s. Police on a French beach were forcing ladies wearing bikinis to cover their navels. And then there was recently that picture of a lady in Nice who was forced to take her t-shirt off. I would say that the state with its laws and regulations has, interestingly, always focused more strongly on women's bodies than men's. 

Even here in Germany, people were not always as revealing as they are today. Until the 1920s, women went swimming covered head to ankle. How did we get to this cultural development?

In modernity, the main difference is that fashion is constructed between the "erotically tagged female" and the "non-erotically tagged male." In addition, erotic male zones - the legs and the buttocks - were transferred to women, and the main focus put on them.

The development of bathing fashion followed this trend: We see more and more of the body and less fabric. Miniskirts, and more bare legs are things that were previously unthinkable. We are increasingly exposing women's bodies so that such ostentatious displays overtake the beauty of the body itself.

Many consider the freedom to expose the female body in Western culture as an achievement of modernity, and see the burkini as a kind of threat to these achievements of the women's liberation movement. 

I think the women's movement only very rarely focused on making skirts shorter and cleavage deeper. Instead, it worked on ensuring that commodities and femininity were not considered equal, so that it doesn't come to a reification of the female body, or a commercialization in the direction of pornography.

Großbritannien Protest gegen das Verbot von Burkinis in Frankreich

Women's bodies have more often been regulated than men's, says Vinken

I would not say that this happens in the form of a bikini necessarily, but for sure it is a problem related to fashion. These days, fashion is seldom considered a feminist achievement - particularly if you ignore Coco Chanel. There are few fashion designers that the feminist movement would say deal with liberation.

But back in the day, the bikini was a symbol of freedom, self-confidence and femininity for many women.

It's not like we are talking about abolishing the bikini. If we were to consider whether we want to prescribe a skirt length, or again to cover our  hair, or now say that we can't walk around on the beach in a bikini…but that's not the case.

Many western designers like Dolce & Gabbana or sports brands like Nike (with "proHijab") are focusing on Muslim fashion. Are they managing to give a positive connotation to religion and allow participation?

I find it unfortunate that women are being forced into things, both in Europe and in Arabic countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran. By us, at school for example, they are forced to remove their veil. In Saudia Arabia they are forced to conceal themselves.

I think that fashion shouldn't be associated with laws and requirements - especially since there are a lot of young ladies, like young Turkish women in Berlin, for example, who obviously wear the veil as a fashion accessory. 

You can't incapacitate others by dictating what they can do. You have to listen to them and understand what they want to do. I find that more meaningful.

Of course it's dangerous if this is forced on girls in their homes. But, interestingly, most of the studies I've read don't talk about this practice in Germany. Instead, they say that the hijab is more likely to be worn as a deliberate act of protest; an act of self-assertion; an action against what many people recognize as "femininity as a consumer good." I actually think using fabric to carry out this debate is quite funny.


Form over function

The 18th century saw the development of the first bathing outfits for ladies and whole-body suits for the gentlemen. People swam in bathing suits made of thick wool and cotton fabrics that soaked up lots of water and took an eternity to dry. Everything was strictly segregated according to gender - including swimming zones.


Better suited

When tourism started to take off in the early 20th century, swimming trips to the sea came into fashion. At the beginning of a season the sea was "opened." Swimsuits had by now become a little tighter, and elastic tricot came into play. Bathing caps, still resembling hats, were intended to protect people from the sun. Full-body swimsuits, as seen here in 1910, were designed for men and women.


Nipped and tucked

The Roaring Twenties finally catapulted swimwear into modernity: small belts, golden buttons and glittering sequins added a decidedly feminine touch to bathing fashion. During this period, swimsuits were tailored only in small fits - they were not available in plus sizes.


A scandalous debut

Just four small triangles held together with thin strings, the world was shocked by the first bikini. On July 5, 1946, exotic dancer Micheline Bernardini appeared in front of cameras in a Parisian swimming pool in the skimpy piece of clothing. The suit was designed by French former-engineer Louis Réard, who probably had no idea he would change the way women bathed forever.


Skirts that won't slip

In the 1950s in the US, Hollywood films featuring swimmers were very successful. The "Aquamaids" performed water ballet and gymnastics on water skis, as pictured in this photo. The top part of the bikini may seem as if it's in danger of flying off, while the skirt appears as if it won't go anywhere at 30 miles per hour. This is an early model of a sporty bikini style.


Bathing Venus

Olympic swimmer Esther Williams caught the attention of Hollywood agents while performing in a water show. This enabled the athlete to earn an income, as she had not been able to participate in the Olympics in 1940 due to World War II. In "Neptune's Daughter," she starred as an attractive bathing beauty, and would eventually become one of the richest women in Hollywood.


And then came Marylin Monroe

The famous curves of American movie star Marilyn Monroe were much accentuated by a bathing suit - that is, when she actually wore one, rather than merely a few drops of Chanel No. 5. Her first successes in front of a camera were in the 1940s when she worked as a model for the famous Pirelli calendar (photo), well before her career as an actress took off.


Modest Miss Germany

The beauty contests of the 1950s were quite modest. What counted most for the jury were inner values: Divorced women were not allowed to take part, for example. The appearances of the candidates were discreetly emphasized by high-heeled shoes and form-fitting swimsuits. Miss Germany Petra Schürmann (seventh from left, first row) won this Miss World competition in 1956.


Incongruous patterns

After Pop Art exploded on the scene, abstract and geometric patterns started to infiltrate fashion ateliers, and became a defining style of the 1960s. One of the most outstanding fashion designers was Frenchman Andre Courrèges, who applied constructivist patterns to swimwear.


Head first

In the 1960s, an absolute must for women such as Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida, pictured here with co-star Sean Connery, was creative bathing caps in a flowery style. Water repellent rubber caps were a necessary accessory in every beach bag - and men were even permitted to wear a sporty version of them.


A cut below the rest

The American TV series "Baywatch" has written swimwear history. The swimsuits of the Baywatch girls were extremely high cut, and defined beachwear fashion the world over in the early 90s. The bright red fabric was reduced even further for actress Pamela Anderson and her notable curves. The cult series was broadcast in 144 countries.


The Bond girls

When Ursula Andress emerged from the ocean in a tight two-piece in 1962, movie-goers' jaws dropped. James Bond, played by Sean Connery, also had to stop for a peek during the film "Dr. No." The same happens to Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in "Die Another Day" 40 years later. In this film, Halle Berry emerges from the water in a similarly flattering suit.


Treading a fine line

The big question posed by all swimwear designers: How much material is too much? The difference between a bikini and a swimsuit, which traditionally is a little bit more concealing, is difficult to define. A swimsuit in retro style is presented here at Fashion Week Miami for the 2011 bathing season. When it comes to innovative swimwear, Australia is the leader.


The burkini isn't only for Muslims

This photo was taken on the beach in Australia. In Australia and New Zealand, many people prefer not to be exposed to the blazing sun, and both Muslims and non-Muslims protect their skin from aggressive rays. On the French Riviera, on the other hand, burkinis are not tolerated. The same is true at many bathing establishments in Germany. The burkini ban remains highly controversial.