Just as summer is ending, the story dominating the news is a seasonal one: the banning of the swimwear item known as the burkini. Bathing costumes have from time to time been controversial and indicative of more than simple tastes in fashion. Several readers of this magazine will remember a time, not so long ago, when a girl in a bikini could faced arrest for indecent exposure, if she ventured on to a beach in Malta. Back in the 1950s the bikini was considered obscene and, yes, unCatholic.
The bathing costume has also been a class indicator. Given that swimwear, flimsy as it is, is very expensive, the poor, not so long ago, could not afford them, and this is still the case in many countries today, where people swim in either any old pair of shorts, or nothing at all, if indeed they swim.
After all, lounging on the beach is the activity of the leisured classes. It is something that we Westerners love, but is not very common among other cultures.
Sea-bathing is a 19th-century fad, perhaps traceable to the Prince Regent and his liking for Brighton. It must have been completely unknown in, by contrast, the Ottoman Empire; and I don’t think there is much evidence for it in the Roman Empire as a leisure activity.
Agrippina Minor, the mother of the Emperor Nero, was of course a champion swimmer, but this was because she was forced by her brother Caligula to earn her living diving for sponges off the Pontine Islands. This gave her a tan, which we would admire today, but in the time of the ancients was considered very working class.
That the burkini should now be a political issue should not surprise us, as the beach has long been a political space of sorts. Likewise, female dress has often exercised the attention of politicians, usually men.
While the comic implications of the name and the garment itself are rather appealing to the English psyche, in France this is serious, and no less a person that Sarkozy has weighed into the national debate on the other side of the Channel.
The French have long been concerned with dress. France before the Revolution was the land of the sumptuary laws, which dictated what you could or could not wear, according to social rank.
The Revolution was supposed to sweep all that away, though of course it legislated against various forms of religious dress, and this continued right up until 1905 when, under the premiership of Emiles Combes, France introduced draconian anti-clerical laws. So the idea that the state should not interfere with what people are wearing is a bit of a non-starter in France.
Indeed, the recent burkini ban is in fact no more than an extension of the burka ban of 2010 and the headscarf ban in schools of 2004. One cannot accuse the French authorities of being inconsistent here.
Are they right to try and ban the burkini? I confess, as an Englishman, to being a bit torn on this one. On the one hand it seems absurd that any government should legislate about what people can and cannot wear. At the same time, it seems to me that the burkini, along with other forms of Muslim dress, is not part of our culture, and constitutes what the French call a “provocation”.
In other words, the burkini is a challenge to the French way of life, in a way that nuns’ habits could never be. It carries with it a series of presuppositions and values that are inimical to French culture.
I would like the burkini to be left in the wardrobe and for people to go to the beach in a way that is in accord with our European traditions, in the usual sort of bathing suit we are accustomed to seeing. But whether the death of the burkini is best brought about through legislation, I am not sure.