updated 14 Aug 2012, 18:59
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'Modest' swimwear sheds its mothballs in US

WASHINGTON - Modest bathing suits have shed their mothballs and come back in style in the United States, with a clientele spanning the religious, the curvy and the sun-sensitive.

"Definitely, there was a need for it," said New York fashion designer Regine Tessone.

"There are a lot of women who need to wear one, including myself," added Ms Tessone, an orthodox Jew who calls her line "original kosher swim wear".

While still a niche industry, modest swim wear is experiencing a boom as retailers see a steady stream of new buyers eager to snap up their four - yes, four-piece swim sets, cover-up dresses and body suits.

With sales ranging in the thousands to tens of thousands of items per retailer, industry representatives say these suits fill a gaping void in an industry projected to bring in overall US$2.6 billion (S$3.24 billion) in 2012, according to market research company IBISWorld.

Ms Zeena Altalib, who owns the Primo Moda boutique in Sterling, Virginia, said she started "out of frustration of things not being available".

"I had to look until I found something I would be satisfied with that looked nice and stylish but was also cut modestly, especially for the summer," the practicing Muslim said.

Alongside dresses and athletic wear, Ms Altalib sells swimsuits that conform with conservative Muslim customs: long sleeves, ankle-length pants, headscarves - all in synthetic fabric made for and approved by public pools.

She said that for Muslim women the "lifestyle is changing," explaining that they "want to and need to participate in everyday activity" as well as "participate in canoeing, go to the beach, enjoy what God has offered us." "As long as we have the appropriate clothing, we can do all of this," she said.

An image on her website shows a woman clad in a beige headscarf, tunic and pants playing basketball.

Ms Tessone, meanwhile, wanted to offer clients - including young girls - the possibility to "shop modest, swim modest and be modest." She launched her online label and New York shop Aqua Modesta about 10 years ago in response to a lack of options for women seeking to avoid unwanted ogling by men at the beach and gym.

Her four-piece swim sets include a skirt with briefs and a fully lined sports bra beneath a top with three-quarter sleeves and abide by Orthodox Jewish dress codes of "tzniut" modesty.

'Shop modest, swim modest'

"Everything that I learned as a designer, I had to do the opposite in creating my own line," she laughed, calling herself somewhat of an outcast in fashion school.

"We were taught always to emphasise the breasts, the hips, all the sensual areas of a woman - and here I have to detract," she said, explaining that under tzniut guidelines a woman can be beautiful but should avoid eliciting sexual desire outside the bedroom.

The idea is echoed by Jen Clothing, which targets Mormons with bathing suits that are modestly cut in a 1950s style, revealing less of the thigh and gathered high up at the bust.

"Is exposure really all that sexy?" the group asks on its website, promising its clients "a bit of mystery and class".

But Muslims and Mormons are not alone in seeking modesty. Some more conservative Christian women - especially evangelical and born-again Christians - and even a secular crowd of older and plus-size women, in a country with a growing problem of obesity, are also joining the trend.

"I see a lot of women who would never walk around in their undergarments and then do just that on the beach! It is crazy," a user who went by the name Nicole commented on Christian blog Created to be His.

Ms Amber Gray of Simply Modest clothiers spoke of a "backlash" against the kind of feminism that "promises freedom, but in reality locks women into thinking that they have to fit a certain idea of what a woman is - and part of that is showing off her body to whomever cares to see it."

She and her sister Heather, who were home-schooled by their parents, purchased the business in 2009 because "we believe God meant it when he commanded his women to dress modestly," according to their website.

Ms Joan Ferguson, founder of Oregon-based WholesomeWear, said her customers are not all motivated by their faith.

"A lot of it is for religious purposes," she said.

"But I have noticed I have gained customers over the years that are buying my suits for weight issues, to stay more covered from the sun, and as a woman ages, she is more self-conscious in a skimpy suit." Others may have skin diseases or want to cover up scars from surgery.

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