Thou Shalt Cover Up - in Style

A new group of bathing-suit designers are intent on making it possible for religiously observant women to show up at the beach and even to swim without violating any rules of 'modesty’

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Each swimsuit in Kineret Sapir’s latest collection is named after the family member or friend who inspired or modeled for it.

Her personal favorite, the first she pulls off the rack in her brand-new store, is called “Shoshi katzar” ‏(“Shoshi short,” in English‏), but it looks far more like a dress than a classic swimsuit. Made of Lycra, this particular design has a printed band around the middle that provides a bit of contrast with its otherwise solid gray color, and it comes with both matching leggings and a head-scarf.

Shoshi, who happens to be Sapir’s sister-in-law, is, says the designer, “religious but not that religious.” When Shoshi found out that all the other women in the family already had bathing suits with their own personal imprints, she confronted Sapir and demanded: “What about me? Don’t I get one?”

The name for this particular design is not meant to suggest that Shoshi is diminutive in appearance. Rather, because she doesn’t mind showing a bit more skin, her sister-in-law made her swimsuit with a shorter skirt and shorter sleeves than the others in her collection.

When some of Sapir’s more religiously observant customers saw that new swimsuit and tried it on, they also liked the slenderizing effect of its high waistline, although they complained that the short sleeves and skirt didn’t meet their own personal standards of modesty. So, in response, Sapir created the “Shoshi arokh” ‏(“Shoshi long”‏) variation.

Outsiders, notes Sapir, a 47-year-old mother of four from the religious moshav of Kfar Yavetz in the Sharon region, might not understand the nuances, but within the Orthodox community, there are many different standards of modest dress. Citing the evolution of the two Shoshi designs, she notes that one of her main challenges in this new business is creating something for everyone.

Sapir, who began studying fashion in high school − only to change course many years later and become an interior designer, before returning to what she calls her “true passion” − belongs to a new cadre of religious fashion designers who are tapping into the expanding market for modest swimwear. To be sure, they are not a large group ‏(less than a dozen, by most estimations‏), but by identifying a growing need and putting a premium on aesthetics, these designers have fomented a revolution of sorts.

“What existed in this market until now was very heavy-looking and downright unfashionable − more like exercise clothing than swimwear,” says Sapir, who notes that it was not uncommon for religious women who adhere to strict standards of modesty to dunk themselves in the pool wearing a robe or other frumpy-looking clothing they wouldn’t otherwise dare be seen in outside the house.

Not only was this sort of improvised swimwear uncomfortable in the heat, she adds, but it also made swimming virtually impossible because the fabric would absorb water and become heavy.

Since she opened her business last August, Sapir has sold more than 500 swimsuits. Last month, she moved the business out of her home to a small store in the Kadima industrial area near her moshav in the Sharon region and is now building an Internet site so that she can sell abroad.

While her swimsuits may appeal to different segments of the Orthodox population, her newly printed brochures clearly have those with the most rigid standards in mind: The faces of her well-endowed models are all blotted out.

Michal Ziv could be considered a pioneer in the field, having begun selling her Csuta-brand modest swimwear from a business she operates out of her home almost seven years ago. “It was an idea I came up with while on vacation with the family at the Kinneret,” she recalls. “I saw religious women there going into the water with cotton fabrics, some wearing jeans, and I said to myself that there’s got to be a better way.”

When she was growing up, recalls Miri Ben-David Livi, an Orthodox blogger who writes about modest fashions, women like her who cared about how they looked at the beach or pool had no choice but to come up with their own solutions.

Livi: “Now there’s so much out there. In the past two to three years, religious women have begun to accept the fact that it’s okay to look good.”

One of the biggest challenges involved in creating swimwear that conforms to strict standards of modesty, designers say, is combating the effect of water. In other words, even the most modestly cut skirt or shirt will tend to float up, exposing skin that should be covered, when a bather enters the water. For this reason, many of the new designs come with leggings; in some cases, these are even sewed into the skirt or dress. As an extra precaution, some have snaps sewn into them so they can be secured in the water.

One increasingly popular style creates the illusion of a skirt and shirt set, when, in fact, the two parts are sewn together, thereby preventing a surprise wave from revealing unwanted tummy skin.

Another big change that has evolved is in color: The new designers make a special effort to avoid what was once the standard black worn by observant women on the beach, preferring bolder and brighter prints. Ziv, for example, has introduced fluorescent orange into her most recent collection.

Although most of their clients tend to bathe at beaches and pools where men and women are separated, even then, the designers explain, the rules of modesty are upheld, which is why classic swimsuits are never an option.

Perhaps not surprisingly, quite a few of the new modest swimwear designers are women who came from nonreligious backgrounds but who embraced Orthodoxy later in life. Sapir falls in this category, and she says it’s not coincidental.

“Women who are born into the Haredi community, this is what they know,” she explains. “But for those of us who know what a real bathing suit feels like, how much more comfortable it is − it’s hard to get used to jumping into a pool wearing a robe.”

Ovadia’s daughter-in-law

Ziv also knows what it’s like to wear a regular arm-and-leg-revealing swimsuit, having grown up in a non-observant home. But even back then, she adds, standard swimwear never appealed to her. “I always thought there was something strange about revealing so much of your body at the pool or beach,” she recalls. “It made me feel very uncomfortable.”

Vered Barzilay is a second-generation, Israeli-born fashion designer who spent many years living in France, where she became religious. It was when she returned to Israel three years ago that the modest swimwear business was starting to sprout.

“Most of what was being sold before then was really not to my taste: mainly leggings with big shirts − very Taliban-style. I decided that it was time for me to make a move,” says Barzilay, who lives in Ra’anana, where she designs modest swimwear under her “42 Secrets” brand, which is sold in boutiques around the country that also cater to the general public.

The first swimsuit she ever designed she sent to Yehudit Yosef, the daughter-in-law of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, for inspection. “I wanted to make sure it was modest enough,” recounts Barzilay. “She told me that she showed it to Rabbi Ovadia who said he would be thrilled if all the ‘daughters of Israel’ went to the beach dressed in that.”

Barzilay describes her high-end creations as “Gottex for the religious,” referring to the internationally renowned Israeli swimsuit brand. Unlike many of the other designs available in the market today, she notes proudly, hers have been styled in a way to maintain modesty without requiring extra garments, like leggings and brassieres. Like Barzilay, most of the new modest swimwear designers bring to the table a background in fashion, some with a specialization in clothing for religious women. Belgian-born Amanda Kremer, for example, another relative newcomer to the industry − having just begun selling modest swimwear under her Amanda K label a year ago − has for years been a well-established name in the Orthodox world of haute couture.

The move into modest bathing suits hasn’t been a particularly natural one for all the new designers. Take Harold and Marci Rapp, for example, the husband-and-wife pair behind MarSea Modest Swimwear ‏(“Cover what you want − in style!” their brochure advertises‏), a company they founded four years ago after moving from Toronto to Israel in order to join three of their four children already living here. Back in Canada, Harold had worked in food sales and Marci as a bookkeeper. The one thing they had resolved before immigrating, in their mid-50s, notes Marci with irony, is that they would not set up their own business.

“We arrived in a country where you have nine months a year of beach weather, but really nothing to wear if you’re religious,” she says. “I knew of an American company that was selling modest swimwear, and I tried on one of their suits, but it didn’t fit right. So my husband said to me, ‘If you don’t like what you see, make your own.’”

And that’s how their business began.

Although she was never a professional seamstress, Marci had been sewing clothes at home since she was little. Today, she and her husband sell 30 different styles of suits ‏(each available in five sizes‏) through 10 local distributors. In addition, through their online site, they have begun taking orders from buyers in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia, with plans to begin marketing soon in both South America and South Africa.

Global market

Although there are a handful of modest-swimwear designers in the United States who cater to the Jewish market there, notes Marci, the Israeli designers have, in sheer numbers at least, overtaken them in the global market.

For her part, Barzilay is also predominantly focused these days on the international market. “About 60 percent of my sales are now overseas,” she says.

And it is not only strictly Orthodox women who are buying her modest swimwear, notes Marci Rapp. “Some are buying it because they don’t like the way they look in a classic swimsuit, others because it provides much better sun protection, and others because they want to cover scars and other physical imperfections,” she notes. If to judge on the basis of names alone, adds Marci, it is clear that many of the orders coming in from overseas are not from Jewish women.

Michele Kotlovski, a mother of three from Kfar Yehoshua, may not be religiously observant, but the idea of wearing a bathing suit that hides those few extra pounds very much appealed to her. And that’s how she ended up in Kineret Sapir’s shop one morning this week trying on different designs. After she finally made her choice and was about to exit the shop, Sapir pointed out an added advantage of the modesty swimsuits: “You see, she doesn’t have to put on the clothing she was wearing before in order to leave the store. She can simply walk out in the bathing suit, and nobody will stare.”

Designer Kineret Sapir, behind the desk, at her store.Credit: Daniel Tchechik

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