Halima Aden is still “shocked” that she got to pose for this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. And not just because she doesn’t wear bikinis.
“I don’t know how to swim!” the 21-year-old model tells The Post.
Aden is Muslim, and part of the way she expresses her faith is by dressing modestly: covering her arms and legs, as well as her head. She’s the first model in Sports Illustrated’s history to appear in its Swimsuit Issue in a full-length burkini and hijab head covering.
But when she was growing up in St. Cloud, Minn., her clothing restrictions prevented her from jumping in the water with her friends.
“The pools here [in the US] won’t let you swim in something that’s not a swimsuit,” she says. “It wasn’t like I could go in the pool with my tights and a shirt, so I never learned how to swim.”
That’s slowly changing. When Aden went to Kenya for her Sports Illustrated shoot, she was met with “an entire roomful of different burkinis,” which cover everything but the face, hands and feet. And while many of the ensembles were custom-made for the occasion, more brands are slowly adding “modest” options to their swim lines — not just burkinis, but suits with various sleeve lengths and with detachable skirts. These aren’t just attractive to women who cover up for religious reasons, like strict Muslims, Orthodox Jews and some Christians, but to a diverse array of customers: from those worried about skin cancer and sun damage to those who want to surf or boogie board in a rough ocean to those who are going through a change in their bodies — such as postpartum women.
Muslim fashion blogger Summer Albarcha says the embrace of full-coverage swim styles correlates with what’s going on in pop culture generally. “I think it comes from the movement of steering away from [the term] ‘beach bodies,’ meaning only thin, perfectly toned bodies,” says the New Brunswick, NJ-based 23-year-old, who is one of the stars in a new “inclusive” swimwear campaign for the brand Summersalt, in which she wears a bright pink long-sleeve swim tunic with matching leggings ($65 each) and a floral hijab.
“I feel like swimsuit brands are . . . creating swimsuits that fit everyone’s comfort level — and that includes women who dress modestly,” she adds.
Sara Wolf, who identifies as a religious Jew, co-founded the swimwear brand HydroChic in part because she was sick of wearing “sloppy T-shirts” to the beach. She soon found that her customer base extended to women of all faiths, as well as those with psoriasis and other conditions who also wanted extra protection.
“That’s why we have a lot of options: from skirts and skorts and shorts to sleeveless and long-sleeved,” Wolf says. “We just believe women in the modern world should have the option to wear something that makes them feel amazing.”
Yet stylish modest suits are still pretty scarce, largely because they are so expensive to produce. Cynthia Rowley, whose rash guards and surf suits have been popular with more conservative women for years, is now selling the color-blocked burkini worn by Aden in Sports Illustrated, but for $295. Then there’s the Italian label Munamer, whose glamorous burkinis with tropical prints in lush colors can cost as much as $500.
“Compared to a bikini, you are using a lot of fabric,” says Regine Tessone, the designer behind Aqua Modesta, which specializes in swim dresses and skirts for Orthodox Jewish women. Tessone’s dresses cost around $70, but a set that includes leggings, a rash guard and a skirt — not to mention some kind of head covering — easily runs in the $100-to- $200 range.
The price was a big reason why 24-year-old Sobia Masood continued swimming in a men’s waterproof shirt and leggings, despite the discomfort.
“Unfortunately they were totally unsuitable for water,” says the Muslim Masood, who lives in Stony Brook, LI, and works in fashion. “The wicking material is just for sweating, so once you get out of the water, everything just kind of sticks to you — like hugging every inch of your body.”
Still, it took her years to find a burkini that was “cute and stylish enough” to justify the steep price. A couple weeks ago, ahead of a trip to Mexico, she finally splurged on a $100 black-and-white Aztec-print set by the brand Lyra Swim, which includes a zip-up swim top, leggings, a short optional wrap skirt and even a chic waterproof turban.
“It’s not going to keep me wet the entire time once I get out of the water,” she says.
Others get creative, cobbling together pieces from different stores to create a stylish swimming ensemble, such as 35-year-old Leona Woolsey, whose strict Christian upbringing required her to wear knee-length skirts and short sleeves in the water. (She has relaxed on the skirt part, but still prefers to keep her thighs covered.)
“A lot of the options have long sleeves or are full coverage or the skirt comes up mid-thigh,” says the Suffolk, Va.-based mother of three, adding that her previous bathing outfit was custom-made for her by her mother-in-law. “It’s hard to find something in between.”
That’s another problem with modest swimwear: It isn’t one-size-fits-all.
“There are so many different variations of modesty,” says Mimi Hecht, co-owner of the modest Crown Heights boutique Mimu Maxi, adding that there are some Orthodox women who go to the beach in stockings and wigs, while others opt for a short-sleeved rash guard with a simple head scarf.
“Most of my friends who keep a lot of the Jewish laws of modesty will be a little more lenient at the beach,” says the 33-year-old. “Nobody is getting into a bikini. But they’ll wear shorter skirts, and if no one” — meaning other members of the community — “is really around, they might go into the pool in a [standard] swimsuit.”
Still, Hecht says that when she’s in danger of running into people she knows, she doesn’t even bother with a swimsuit, preferring a breezy short-sleeve top and flowing skirt, which she finds more comfortable.
“There are modest swimwear brands, but they’re a little nerdy, honestly,” she says. “You feel so covered in a place where you want to feel the sun and the water.
“I’m not going to lie, I feel like I’m definitely missing out on a certain element of the beach experience, of just stripping down to your bathing suit and jumping in.”
Albarcha agrees. While she now buys her swimwear through Coolibar, which offers full-coverage UV-protection bathing suits, she prefers activities like boating and jet-skiing that don’t require fully suiting up.
“I don’t really enjoy swimming in public as much,” she says.
But that’s not deterring Aden, who says that she’s finally learning to swim this summer, thanks to her experience modeling modest swimwear for SI.
“That’s part of my 2019 goals, now that I have access to so many cute burkinis,” she says.
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