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Pop Stuff: Yves Saint Laurent and the Burkini

An insight into how the burkini can empower women

Soleil Nathwani Nov 23, 2016
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Photo: Kzenon/Shutterstock.com

Photo: Kzenon/Shutterstock.com

Fashion month across the world just drew to a close. Models strutted through New York, London and Milan, fittingly ending the shows in Paris, the birthplace of couture. France has given us Dior, Chanel, Givenchy, Louis Vuitton and notably, YSL. Yves Saint Laurent arguably did more to embolden women through clothes than anyone before or since. In 1966, he designed ”˜Le Smoking’, the androgynous tuxedo style suit which put the pants on women and made it not just acceptable, but stylish for them to dress as only alpha men had. Half a century later, and the pioneers of liberalism are backing into the Dark Ages. Several French towns have banned the burkini, conservative swimwear that allows women to enjoy a day at the beach while observing the tenets of their faith. Many continue to do so despite the high court overruling the ban. The country that hangs its hat on free thinking is telling women what to wear and pinning it on a Climate of Terror. What would Saint Laurent say?

My hope is that like me, he’d say an emphatic no. Women continue to be subjugated in the name of religion, social mores and male dominance but that cannot be reason to impose a subjective forward thinking choice on a woman who wears a hijab of her own free will. That’s tyranny in a cloak of emancipation. Who’s to say that a burka clad female isn’t more empowered than one in a string bikini? And when officers insist that a young mother on a beach in Nice remove her tunic because it manifests religious adherence in a country experiencing terror attacks, hypocrisy is slapping Lady Liberty in the face. The notion that violating someone’s freedom to express themselves or practice their faith is an appropriate response to a Jihadi massacre is ludicrous. Oppression feeds resentment as much freedom starves it.

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The Burkini has given women, Muslim or not, more freedom, not less. Observant women can play water sports, others use it as sun protection and some just don’t feel like being ogled. Aheda Zanetti, its creator has seen sales go through the roof. And in defiance of a growing global Islamophobia, ”˜modest’ fashion is having a moment in the sun. New York Fashion Week made history this year by featuring Jakarta designer Anniesa Haisbaun’s hijab wear over trendy velvet pajama pants and kaftans with waist-cinching belts. Haisbaun is not alone. Iman Aldebe, daughter of a retired Imam sells her striking turbans across the globe, designer Hana Tajima recently collaborated with UNIQLO and H&M introduced a hijab
wearing model last year.

The real victory for burkinis on the beach, burqas on runways and turbans on fashion feeds is that we’re one step further in the long journey towards inclusivity of ideas, faiths and individuality. Making modest fashion familiar and accessible empowers women. Like seeing Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad win a bronze for fencing while in a headscarf or having Scotland approve the hijab as part of their police uniform; it sends the signal that religious choices or physical appearance won’t dictate strength and spirit or set people apart. While the burkini debate simmers, the debate on what women should wear rages on. The French tell women to bare beach bodies, the Americans examine Hillary’s pant suits and as Indians, we continue to equate flashing cleavage with loose morals. It’s a debate that should be passé, unfashionable and finally laid to rest with Saint Laurent’s words as epitaph, “What is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it”.

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Soleil Nathwani is a New York-based Culture Writer and Film Critic. A former Film Executive and Hedge Fund COO, Soleil hails from London and Mumbai. 



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