It all started on July 5, 1946, when French designer Louis Reard, originally a mechanical engineer, introduced the bikini, a two-piece bathing suit (or what’s left of a suit) for women.
The bikini was banned outright in many places, deemed indecent and provocative. The Vatican called it sinful. But courageous women persisted, even outdoing each other with, as the song goes, wearing “itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka-dot bikini.”
Acceptance was slow. The bikini song, which first hit the airwaves in 1960, still reflects the shock value of the bikini.
In this country, you’d still be hard-pressed to find women using the bikini in public beaches. Even in liberal University of the Philippines Diliman, Vice Chancellor Fidel Nemenzo, who grew up on campus in faculty housing, remembers how tongues wagged in the 1980s among professors and their families when some sisters (not Sisters) dared come out to sunbathe in their bikinis, even if these weren’t that itsy-bitsy. Then people shrugged, pointing out that the bold sisters had just come back from the United States, their father having spent some years there doing graduate work.
Language and fashion change
There’s an interesting study in both language change and fashion innovations in the bikini and its successors. The bikini was actually named after a tiny atoll in the South Pacific which, four days before the new swim wear was introduced, had been the site of nuclear weapons testing by the United States. Reard, the designer, grabbed the name, hoping the revealing swim wear would have an “explosive commercial and cultural reaction”—which it did.
“Bikini” actually meant “coconut place” in Ebon, the language used in the nuclear testing atoll, but in the West, people focused on the “bi,” meaning “two.” So it wasn’t surprising that all kinds of “kini” came about—trikini, tankini (not my invention, but a reference to getting a suntan), a bolder minikini, and the boldest monokini, also known as the unikini and numokini (and guess which piece became numo)?
Sometime last year, I remember reading about the burkini (or burquini) being introduced in Europe as alternative wear for Muslim women who want to go to the beach. The burkini was invented in the early 2000s by Aheda Zanetti, who was born in Lebanon but migrated with her parents to Australia when she was two. Before the burkini she first created a hijood (hijab plus hood), a head garment that would allow Muslim women to engage in outdoor sports. The burkini came later, and spread quickly when it was adopted by Muslim women lifeguards in Australia. Zanetti says she has sold more than 700,000 of these burkinis, to women of all faiths, and some men, too, with the European market being fairly new.
Let’s get back to the linguistic part. “Burkini” is derived from “burqa” (clothing used by Muslim women to cover the entire body except the face) and “kini.” The burkini is a full-length bathing suit that includes a built-in hood; the whole body is covered except for the face, hands and feet.
This year, ironically close to the 70th anniversary of the bikini, some 30 French municipalities along the Riviera banned the use of the burkini on their beaches, citing two reasons. First, still reeling from terrorist attacks, paranoid politicians thought the burkini was too much covering and would create security risks. Second, because it was “Islamic,” the burkini was seen as violating French laws on secularism, meaning it was too explicitly religious. (A strict interpretation of the law would mean even large crucifixes would be banned from being worn.)
France’s highest administrative court pronounced the ban as illegal, but more than 20 mayors are resisting the ruling. The French Supreme Court has since declared the ban unconstitutional, but still several mayors are resisting.
Which all shows how explosive women’s clothing can be, with strange twists in the debates. Really, who would have known that you’d get to the point where police can make women remove, rather than put on, clothing?
The burkini issue is more complicated because some women’s rights advocates look at it, and any kind of Islamic covering, as oppressive to the wearer. But Muslim women themselves will argue that it is their right to choose to be covered or not, especially because they feel more comfortable using these coverings.
The ban has also been described as Islamophobic, meaning an irrational fear of Muslims. A Christian woman protecting herself from sunburn might wear a big hat and extra clothing to cover her arms and legs, and would have no problems with the law. In fact, after the burkini wars broke out, there have been media reports about the “facekini” in China, where women put on something that looks like a ski mask, covering the entire head except the eyes, nose and mouth. The purpose of the facekini is to protect against the sun, in a country where fair skin is important.
Note how all the controversies involve women’s swim wear. Women’s bodies are ideological battlegrounds for gender issues. Some of the burkini users interviewed by the British newspaper The Guardian say that the burkini is their way of saying no to having to dress up (or down) for men. A woman’s appeal, they argue, should not be based on how her clothing impacts on men; instead, what counts is how a woman feels in clothing she chooses, for herself.
No one has called for a ban on men wearing itsy-bitsy swim wear; in fact, during the recent Rio Olympics there was an explosion of web pages, including the prim and proper New York Times, featuring photographs of the male Olympians in their rather suggestive swim wear. And the irony is that their swim wear actually looks like the burkini, designed by engineers to make them perform better in the swimming competitions.
The titillating (smile) photos of Olympians in their burkini-like swim wear shows that heated passions are not about having more or less clothing, but about landscapes—you know, contours and all that.
Which takes us back to the Philippines. Out of modesty, many of our women in public beaches and swimming pools refuse to use bathing suits of any kind. Thus, they go into the water practically fully clothed.
But there’s a paradoxical consequence when the covered women come out of the water: The modesty produces a wet look that highlights, well, the landscape. Filmmakers have capitalized on this geographical definition of sexiness, the bikini actually becoming boring, even old-fashioned, by revealing too much, too soon.
And our men? Well, they’re the ones taking to the bikinis, with more and more of them joining the proliferation of “Mister” and “Ginoong” beauty pageants where they get to show off their itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny outfits while ogling fans debate about what weenie time it is.
The kini wars rage, on another front.
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