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Putting the sass and style into modest swimwear

If swimming is for everyone, why is it that some needs are still not met when it comes to suitable swimwear? Not enough demand? Or not understood? Editor Ella Foote meets the women making stylish and sustainable modest swimwear.

Many women choose modest swimwear to be able to enjoy the water. It could be for cultural, religious, health or personal reasons but they seek something that covers the arms and legs that is comfortable and safe to swim in.

Big brands like Nike and Adidas have developed swim hijabs complete with swim leggings and long-sleeved tops, but now independent brands are coming to market offering more stylish, fun and sustainable choices for those passionate about the water.

Zainab Ahmed, Founder of Pretty Sassy Lady, was on holiday in Turkey when she realised there was a gap in the market for women who wanted more modest swimwear. “I was going through a period of transition with my body and was moving closer to my faith, so I preferred to cover up at the beach,” she says. “I was wearing a kaftan over my swimming costume both in and out of the pool. I was swimming whilst wearing it, and it felt like a death trap! I was getting wrapped up in all the fabric that was floating around me. I thought there must be a better way to do this.

Pretty Sassy Lady

Existing burkini styles weren’t design-led or stylish which is why I didn’t own one, so I decided to create my own range of modest swimwear which was fashionable and fun to help other ladies like myself feel confident (and safe) in the water.”

Inclusive, fashionable and modest swimwear

With a background in the fashion industry, marketing experience and an eye for style, Zainab set out to solve the problem. “I wanted to design a brand that created fashionable, modest swimwear,” she says. “But I also wanted it to be inclusive with a diverse appeal. I wanted to give women a choice.

Some customers have purchased for religious purposes, but others because they are looking to protect their skin from the sun or were not comfortable in a traditional swimsuit.” As well as comfort, functionality and style, Zainab also wanted to create something with sustainability in mind. “Part of the Islamic way of life is to be mindful of the earth,” she says.

“I thought, if I am going to start a business, I want it to be sustainable from the very beginning. All swimwear is made from regenerated nylon fibre and delivered to customers in 100% recyclable packaging. I don’t use plastic throughout the manufacturing process and even my hygiene stickers are made from sustainably sourced wood pulp which are 100% compostable – even at home. The swimwear is made in the UK which reduces our carbon footprint too.”

Pretty Sassy Lady aims to be ‘always classy, never trashy with a hint of sassy’. The swimwear can be purchased as separates to accommodate different body shapes or needs and comes
in a range of bright and colourful designs. “I wanted to make the range fun and colourful, but it has been a steep learning curve,” says Zainab.

“I explored an entire suit made from bright yellow fabric, but unlike a little bikini which would look cute, a suit with this much fabric ended up looking like a banana! The best way could incorporate colour was keeping a neutral base with pops of colour.”

Like many women, Zainab liked swimming when she was younger and learnt as a child but stopped swimming so much because of the lack of suitable swimwear. “Pretty Sassy Lady is about providing options, giving women a choice,” says Zainab. “There might be days when you want to cover up more and the swim leggings are ideal in and out of the water.”

A barrier to trying outdoor swimming

Finding suitable outdoor clothing, swimwear or activewear can be a huge hurdle to overcome. If you can’t see someone like you doing the thing you want to do, wearing something that might fit and suit you, you might think the space, community or sport isn’t for you.

“One of the reasons it took me so long to learn to swim was lack of swimwear options,” says Aysha Sharif, regular outdoor swimmer and the April 2022 issue’s cover star. “The only option for me then was to wear a normal swimsuit with leggings on top, which were not suitable for swimming. With advances in modest swimwear, we have been given more flexibility. We can be as covered as we want to be, the suits are better designed for swimming, they are quick drying and stylish! Just because we want modest swimwear doesn’t mean we don’t want to be stylish!”

Aysha moved to the Lake District from Lancashire 18 months ago with her two daughters, the move inspired her ambition to learn to swim. “I didn’t have the opportunity to learn to swim when I was younger,” she says. “Then I could never find anyone to teach me especially because I wear a hijab. When I moved, I was desperate to go kayaking so I started to take swimming lessons and then did my first outdoor swim in May last year. After that it escalated. I had always been afraid but knew I wanted to do it.”

Aysha sought help from Suzanna Swims (swim guide Suzanna Cruickshank) for her first open water swim. “She gave me confidence,” says Aysha. “It was so daunting. I didn’t know how to get started or what kit I needed or if it was something I could do. Suzanna was so nurturing. I now feel like I am making up for lost time and life has thrown me a curveball. I want my girls to see that no matter how difficult you perceive something, you can do it, you must push your way through no matter how uncomfortable or scary it is. I jump into things more now because I don’t want them to be afraid and I want them to see it is something they can do too.”

Aysha is part of a Lake District community called The Wanderlust Women, a hiking and adventure group for Muslim women. “As brown Muslim woman, it’s very difficult to be in the mountains,” says Aysha. “It is getting easier now I have the confidence, but when you are starting out and you don’t see people of your faith or colour on the landscape it is difficult. When I started proper hiking, it was about having the right kit and knowing how to keep yourself safe, if you don’t have a network to guide you it is embarrassing to ask for help and you don’t always know how people will respond to you. It is really important that our spirituality is a fundamental part of our experience and something we reaffirm every time we do a trip together. With the community, if we empower one woman, most likely she will go on to empower the people in her home and they too will go on to be better members of society.”

The importance of swimming

Normalising activities in the outdoors and making swimming more accessible is something Sei Sorelle Swimwear Founders are also keen to tackle. Sei Sorelle, which means six sisters in Italian, is a modest swimwear brand run by six sisters – Aneesa, Aisha, Maryum, Zaenab, Asmaa and Iqra.

“Statistically people from ethnic minorities are not taking part or engaging in swimming,” says Aneesa. “The reasons are multifaceted but one of the factors is lack of decent swimwear, which is why we decided to start our own range.” Aneesa and her sisters did learn to swim when they were children but as they got older it was a challenge to find practical and functional swimwear. “We got to an age when culturally and religiously one-piece swimsuits and bikinis were not suitable anymore. We would wear makeshift swimwear with leggings and a baggy top, but at many pools you weren’t allowed to wear things like that. It had to be swimwear, which was probably for hygiene and safety reasons but there wasn’t anything functional or attractive for us to wear.”

Overtime the sisters stopped swimming and it was only when they started having their own children, they were reintroduced to the importance of swimming. “When we were younger swimming wasn’t given the same level of importance of it being a fundamental life skill,” says Aneesa. “We were taught to stay away from water rather than water confidence, with our brand we want to encourage and enforce the importance of swimming.”

The Italian inspired name of the brand is connected to the materials of the costume. The fabric is Italian and sustainable, as is the packaging, hygiene labels and hangtags. The brand launched in the middle of the pandemic, which is especially impressive as all six sisters also work for the NHS. “It is important that the swimwear is lightweight, durable, quick-drying and caters for a range of women,” says Aneesa. “It’s functional and practicable but designed for full coverage across cultures and religions. Some women want modest swimwear because their skin is sensitive to UV, others have had surgery, and some have religious reasons. We wanted to ensure we have different levels of coverage, something for swimmers but also something for women who want to be in water with family but have an option to wear something that won’t weigh them down.”

Aneesa and her family are getting back to the water but says she still isn’t a confident swimmer. “It is interesting because none of us are confident swimmers, but all of our partners are,” she says. “We are all from the same community but there is a difference between the male and female experience. When I used to go on holiday I felt left out when my partner would go out swimming, jumping off boats while I stayed on the shore. I have now enrolled in swimming lessons to get more confident. When I stand on a beach in Europe I stand out, I used to hate what I was wearing, and it wasn’t functional. Now in our swimwear I feel confident, it is flattering and fashionable. I still get stared at, we have a long way to go to normalise modest swimwear, but I don’t feel as awkward.”

Discover more about Pretty Sassy Lady, Sei Sorelle and The Wanderlust Women. This story was originally published in the April 2022 ‘Swim Strong’ issue of Outdoor Swimmer. Click here to subscribe to the magazine. Images: Ben Gerrish, Pretty Sassy Lady, Sei Sorelle.

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Ella is renowned outdoor swimmer and journalist. As well as leading the editorial, digital and experiential outputs for Outdoor Swimmer she is also Director of Dip Advisor, a swim guiding business helping people enjoy wild water. Ella also teaches swimming to children and adults, is an Open Water Coach and RLSS Open Water Lifeguard.