Five years ago Post fashion writer Robin Givhan scoffed at the notion of modest swimwear in a July 14, 2006 column "Ultimate Coverup."
Fast forward to today and the Post's Alison Lake gave Style section readers a gushy look at how "Muslim women shop for ways to bare little."
"Web sites offer modest fashions suitable for summer and pool wear," noted the subheader to Lake's story.
"U.S. Muslims number about 2.4 million (estimates vary), with about 250,000 in the Washington area, but no major fashion retail chain markets directly to Muslim women," Lake lamented, adding "many struggle to shop locally" and must turn to Internet outlets.
What's more, "in major retail stores, modesty is an afterthought," Lake noted, citing Muslim fashion designer Zeena Altalib of PrimoModa.com.
Lake cited another Muslim designer, Kelly Alsharif who argued that "If a chain store were to carry clothing that appealed to these groups [Muslims and conservative Christians and Jews concerned with modesty], they would have a very loyal customer base."
Overall, the tone of Lake's piece was clear: Muslims can be fashionable while being modest and faithful to religious tradition, but it's a shame that mainstream retail shops don't carry clothing that caters to them.
By contrast, the 2006 column by then-Post fashion critic Robin Givhan derided the notion of women choosing modest swimwear, singling out the Wholesome Wear line:
The makers of WholesomeWear swimsuits would like women to cover up their tummies. And their backs. And their arms. And half their legs. The Oregon company, based outside Portland, sells a collection of swimwear online that consists of a wet suit topped by a dress. The spandex underpinning is not sufficient on its own because bystanders would still be able to make out the curves of the woman's body. The nylon overdress takes care of any audacious display of an hourglass shape.
Givhan noted that Wholesome Wear "is not aimed at practitioners of any religion" but went on to scoff the Christian sensibilities that inform the company's founders (emphasis mine):
"There are still people in this world who prefer modesty," says Joan Ferguson, who handles sales for the company. "So my son, his wife and daughter designed the product."
WholesomeWear is going into its fifth year and, according to Ferguson, has sold thousands of swimsuits in three styles: culotte, skirted and "slimming," which looks like a loose-fitting housedress. There is an option with the slimming suit to extend the sleeves below the elbows and to lower the hem so it ends just above the ankles. A woman would be swimming in something akin to a choir robe. "These are designed to highlight the face and not the body," Ferguson says. That may be true, but a woman is more than just a disembodied head. Why be fearful of the rest of her?
The company may not be preaching to a specific denomination, but it is nonetheless preaching. Ferguson describes her family as "Christian people who love the Lord." And the swimsuits are "a ministry."
It's understandable that some men and women may feel frustrated and scandalized in a culture that accommodates micro-miniskirts, cropped halter tops and visible thongs. They want someone to stand up and say, "Put some clothes on, darn it!" But surely, in the search for modesty, wouldn't one stumble across something decent and virtuous before getting all the way to a nylon shroud? Wouldn't a demure tankini do? Or a one-piece with a matching skirt?
Ferguson says her company isn't on a mission to un-liberate women. "Absolutely not. If people want to buy our suits we're thrilled, but they certainly don't have to," Ferguson says. A person has to have strong convictions "to wear our suits," she says. If you have those convictions, "you're not going to care about the liberation or if you get persecuted and made fun of."
WholesomeWear may appeal to certain people of faith, but it also raises many lamentable body issues with which women grapple. Most women dread buying a swimsuit. The occasion is fraught with irrational feelings of inadequacy. Women often joke that they would wear a muumuu to the beach if they could. The truth is there's nothing to stop them from doing just that. But they know the cure for their insecurity is to let go of cultural expectations and their own skewed self-image. The answer is not to hide the body but to cheer for its ability to swim laps or just sedately float -- in a bit of form-fitting, aerodynamic nylon and Lycra. That's not immodesty; that's confidence.
In the past, the woman on the beach wearing a bikini was the aberration, the spectacle. But now, a woman in a bikini is commonplace. She spans all ages. And there is something especially compelling about an older woman wearing a two-piece swimsuit, not necessarily to display her curves but to underscore her strength.
A woman swaddled in WholesomeWear's knee-length nylon would stand out. Not just because she's covered up but because she's done it in such an unattractive way. Perhaps she is modest or religious or simply someone who really needs to get over the fact she doesn't have legs like Naomi Campbell. But in looking at all that camouflaging fabric, at the layers aimed at obscuring the physique, one wonders how a swimsuit "ministry" can save anyone's soul when such ungainly suits have so little appreciation for beauty.
Image of woman modeling "modern modest swim suit" via PrimoModa.com.