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Deciding what to wear in another culture August 27, 2016

Posted by Bettina Hansel in burkini, Culture and Place.
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PURPLE_BOOKOver the years I have sometimes wondered: Sneakers or leather walking shoes for my European travels? Maybe I don’t want my shoes to announce that I’m from the USA. Locally purchased salwar kameez suit or American skirt and blouse in New Delhi? No one will mistake me for an Indian either way, but looking at the salwar kameez suits available on line, I see that the average kameez is now longer than those I bought so long ago in India. Back home in New York, feeling that I couldn’t comfortably wear the salwar kameez as an outfit, but loving the look, I took to wearing a very lovely knee-length kameez alone as a dress until an Indian colleague recognized the origin and asked me teasingly, “Where are your pants?” He was startled to see me half-dressed. It isn’t always easy to feel that you are appropriately or adequately dressed, especially when trying the fashion of another culture.

The “burkini” debate in France reminds me of the time when my two-piece bathing suit was seen by my Brazilian friends as somewhat inappropriate for the bikini beaches of Bombinhas in Brazil. It seemed I was wearing too much suit. I was younger and slim enough then to consider their views as the bikini vendor passed us on the beach and my friends encouraged me to buy something “more attractive.” They helped assess the amount of coverage in the seat that would be modest. I can’t say I felt 100% comfortable wearing the bikini. I did feel somewhat daring and experimental. And quite a bit exposed.


Clothing decisions are not trivial. The choices you make are statements about your identity, the culture you belong to, and how you feel about your body. But your choices usually change over time as you find new styles created for different activities and your changing identity. Clothing for sports has changed over time, and swim wear is no exception. Yet many women find themselves unhappy with the available choices that leave one feeling too vulnerable and uncomfortable. Many women in the USA throw a T-shirt over their swim suit, even in the water, and on the beach they have a cover-up or a beach towel covering them as protection from sun and stares.

It was disheartening to read of the ruckus in France over the burkini, which will perhaps stop with the new court ruling. I no longer have the courage to stand on even a Brazilian beach in a bikini suit, but the burkini looks like a comfortable and worry-free option that is sure to appeal to more than just Muslim women.