The burkini ban: what it really means when we criminalise clothes

France is tearing itself apart over a swimsuit but its not the first time an item of clothing has caused a political storm. What we wear has always hidden deeper fears about sex, race and class

This is what happens to my skin in the sun. After a few minutes, it goes a mottled pink. Give it an hour or so, and it goes the colour of a ripe tomato. Shortly after that, it burns really badly, and the next day I develop full-body dandruff. Not a good look.

So I go to the beach well equipped. I wear sunscreen, of course. But also a hat, a scarf to cover my neck and my head as well if its too windy for the hat, a long-sleeved tunic, and light trousers to pull on somewhere between the mottled pink and tomato stage. I long ago accepted that I am never going to go brown, so I cover up, and Im comfortable that way. But on a growing number of French beaches, it seems that covering up is now against the law.

On Tuesday, we saw photographs showing four armed policemen on a beach in Nice bullying a woman by forcing her to strip off layers. Another woman a mum of two, identified only as Siam, aged 34 was also fined on a Cannes beach for dressing in a similar way, and so apparently not wearing an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.

My current beach trousers and tunic are remarkably like those the woman was wearing on the beach in Nice, but we all know how unlikely it would be for me to attract police attention. This legislation is aimed at the burkini, clothing that apparently overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks. Nor am I likely to get into trouble for wearing a T-shirt with an image of the Buddha, another of my favourite coverups: the only religion being targeted here is Islam.

A womans right to choose her own beach outfit has long been an area of controversy. In 1907, record-breaking Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested on Revere beach in Boston for wearing a sleeveless one-piece swimming outfit remarkably similar to the burkini. It was then considered to be so revealing it was obscene, though a judge later allowed a compromise whereby she could go into the water wearing her revolutionary suit, as long as she was covered by a cape until submerged.

Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested in 1907 for wearing a sleeveless swimming outfit, seen to be so revealing that it was obscene Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
Still, when the bikini was introduced in the 1950s, Kellerman declared it was a mistake. Only two women in a million can wear it, she said. And its a very big mistake to try. The bikini shows too much. It shows a line that makes the leg look ugly, even with the best of figures. A body is at its most beautiful when there is one beautiful, unbroken line.

The Pope also condemned the two-piece, although for rather different reasons. It was banned in Italy, Spain and Portugal and, despite Brigitte Bardot posing on a Cannes beach in a bikini in 1953 and Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in an iconic white bikini in Dr No in 1962, it took a surprising amount of time to catch on. But now, it seems, it is our civic and moral duty to display as much bare flesh as possible while sunbathing, and it is hard to find a womens magazine in spring that isnt hectoring us to get bikini-ready, to starve, wax, salon tan and exercise our bodies into the desired condition.

To the French minister for womens rights, Laurence Rossignol, wearing as little as possible on the beach has now somehow become a feminist issue. [The burkini] has the same logic as the burqa: hide womens bodies in order to control them, she has said, seemingly unaware of the contradiction of forcing women to show their bodies instead. It is not just the business of those women who wear it, because it is the symbol of a political project that is hostile to diversity and womens emancipation.

Brigitte Bardot is photographed in a bikini at Cannes in 1953. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex/Shutterstock

Yet, if we go back 170 years or so, what was then known as Turkish dress was controversial for exactly the opposite reason. Inspired by Muslim dress and pioneered by the British actor, writer and anti-slavery campaigner Fanny Kemble, the wearing of long, loose pantaloons under a relatively light, short dress was hugely liberating for European women previously restricted by long, heavy dresses, layers of equally heavy petticoats and body-distorting corsets. After US sufferage and temperance activist Amelia Bloomer espoused the look in her magazine, the Lily, in 1851, it turned into a craze on both sides of the Atlantic, and became known as Bloomer dress, then simply bloomers. The backlash from church, media and state was predictable, but their complaint was not that this oriental dress style was too modest, but that it was too racy, a sign that women were encroaching dangerously on male territory.

This comes as no surprise. Fashion has always been a reliable barometer of social change, and almost every attempt to prohibit a trend hides a far deeper fear. To pull on the shifting threads of gender, race and class, all we have to do is follow the popular anxieties about what we wear. Or rather, what other people are wearing to upset us.

In his brilliant book Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears, Geoffrey Pearson looks back over more than a century of media fears, examining our tendency to always believe there was a golden age of safety and peace, usually about 20 years before our own age. It wasnt until the 1890s, when mass-produced clothes were becoming more affordable and working-class youths were starting to earn money of their own, that these fears got tangled up with fashion.

The fear then was hooligans, violent gangs of young men with seemingly no respect for authority or the police. They had different names around the country Peaky Blinders or Sloggers in Birmingham, Scuttlers, or later Ikeys, in Manchester but they dressed in a remarkably similar fashion.

The boys affect a kind of uniform, claimed the Daily Graphic newspaper in a November 1900 article titled Real Hooligans. No hat, collar, or tie is to be seen. All of them have a peculiar muffler twisted round the neck, a cap set rakishly forward, well over the eyes, and trousers very tight at the knee and loose at the foot. The most characteristic part of their uniform is the substantial leather belt heavily mounted with metal. It is not ornamental, but then it is not intended for ornament.

In Manchester, one gang fight in 1890 apparently involved a pitched battle of 500-600 youths, with shopkeepers barricading themselves into their stores to prevent damage and looting, and police powerless to intervene. Accounts of this incident even include an enticing mention of female scuttlers, dressed in clogs and shawl and a skirt with vertical stripes, but in the main, newspapers of the time were obsessed with the dress style of male gang members, which they found absurdly troubling.

Flappers, with their girlish skirts, bobbed hair and heavy makeup, appeared after the first world war. Photograph: Jonathan Kirn/Corbis via Getty Images

In the turbulent, heady period of change following the first world war, the short, girlish skirts of the flappers, their bobbed hair, heavy makeup, love of jazz music and freer attitudes towards sex were terrifying, a sign of a world that was changing rapidly, and becoming more connected. There was little that could be done about the import of American music or shifting morals, but many workplaces began imposing strict dress codes for women, banning patterned fabrics, short sleeves and excessive makeup, as well as imposing longer hemlines.

Men under arrest en route to court during the Los Angeles zoot suit riots in June 1943. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Those hemlines rose again during the second world war because of cloth shortages, and, of course, women wore trousers to work on farms and factories. In the US, the fashion for baggy zoot suits among black and Hispanic men especially was deemed wasteful in wartime, and led to the zoot suit riots, in which white servicemen beat up men wearing oversized suits in Los Angeles. No one now reading accounts of the brutal and humiliating beatings of the men, or the crowing media praise of the cleansing effect of the riots, could doubt that the main issue here was not fashion choice, but race, fear and power.

After the war, it was deemed important to force women back into the home and Christian Diors New Look epitomised the mood: longer, full skirts celebrated the end of cloth rationing, but the new hourglass silhouette with its clinched, corsetted waist also signalled a more traditionally feminine and restricted role for women. The zoot suit travelled to Britain, too, modified into Teddy Boy outfits, and the anxieties about race and about the growing economic power of the young can be clearly seen in the press coverage of the new rocknroll music that the Teddy Boys loved.

It is deplorable. It is tribal. And it is from America, thundered the Daily Mail in September 1956. It follows ragtime, blues, Dixie, jazz, hot cha-cha and the boogie-woogie, which surely originated in the jungle.

A group of Teddy Boys on the front at Lowestoft in 1962. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

But teenagers were here to stay, along with their music and fashions. By the 1960s, the economy was booming, young women were back in the workplace with money of their own, and hemlines began rising dramatically. Mary Quant was the first to show the miniskirt on the catwalk, in 1964, but she has often said that she didnt invent it: credit for that goes to young Londoners who didnt want to wear the same styles as their mothers. It all started in Chelsea, really. There was this sort of mood; rules were there to be broken.

She recalls businessmen banging on the windows of her shop, shouting at how obscene and disgusting her dresses were, and in 1967, four young French women wearing miniskirts were apparently stripped by a mob while walking through Paris. Le Parisien newspaper was in no doubt who was to blame: They provoked the butchers of Les Halles, screamed the headline (accompanied, of course, by a photograph of four women in short skirts, presumably to provoke male readers into further attacks).

But young women refused to be deterred. When Christian Dior tried to assert the status quo by showing below-the-knee designs in his 1966 autumn/winter collection, a small group calling themselves the British Society for the Advancement of the Miniskirt protested outside his London HQ, holding placards defending their right to show a leg.

Ever since, anxieties about clothing tend to be about what is being concealed, rather than shown. From the burkini on the beach to the banning of hoodies in shopping centres, our fear now is what lurks beneath. Mostly, it is just a woman taking her kids to the seaside, or a teenage boy out to meet his mates in baggy hip-hop clothing, and nothing more. It may not feel that way, but we are safer than we have ever been as we go about our daily lives, and appalling though every act of terrorism is and, indeed, every violent crime the odds of any of us experiencing either is very low. But we feel scared. And we feel powerless. So we blame the EU, refugees, the burkini. And we look back to what now seems a safer, happier time, when all we had to worry about was hemlines.

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