Now is a good time for women concerned with dressing modestly. Retro fashion, which borrows inspiration from the 50s and early 60s, is in. Sites like ModCloth.com propelled the current interest in vintage and retro-style fashion, including swimwear. But in mainstream stores, the options are limited.
During a recent trip to the mall, my cousin and I spotted a rare combination: a bathing suit both trendy and modest. But it was too good to be true. The retro one-piece and modest two-piece suits at Forever 21 only came in plus sizes. I could buy an XL, but Lisa, who is smaller, was stuck searching through a rack of tiny string bikinis or “one pieces” that were basically bikinis with a strip of fabric connecting the top and bottom.
So I kept looking. Target sells modest one piece suits and tankinis, which are composed of a regular swim bottom and a top long enough to cover the stomach. Charlotte Russe had two one-piece suits, both in black. Teen store Aerie—part of American Eagle—just had a big bin with a mishmash of bikini tops and bottoms. After visiting every store in the mall, I concluded most stores market modest swimsuits to older, pregnant, or plus-size women. Designers for mainstream stores seem to think that a woman would only want to wear a one piece if she has something to hide.
The Bible calls women to “dress modestly, with decency and propriety” (1 Timothy 2:9 ESV). A typical beach, though, is a stage for showing skin: Men bare their chests and women wear waterproof lingerie.
Designer Jessica Rey was disgusted with mainstream swimwear options. Last year, Rey gave a talk at a Q conference, the Christian speaker series. The video went viral. In it, she used the 1960 “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” song to make a point: “I believe the woman was afraid to come out of the water because she had a natural sense of modesty about her that has been stripped away by today’s culture, and we need to bring it back.”
Rey started an upscale business, Rey Swimwear, with designs inspired by vintage glamor icon Audrey Hepburn. Each suit is named for a Hepburn character, such as the Holly, a tankini with elegant shoulder straps named after the Breakfast at Tiffany's character. The company offers tankinis, one pieces, and swim dresses, which include a skirt for more coverage. Rey Swimwear's tagline: “Who says it has to be itsy bitsy?”
On June 11, Sarah Fleckenstein and Chandler Shelton, both 16, shopped for swimsuits at Belk in Asheville, N.C. The friends said they usually wear bikinis. (Shelton said it was possible to find a modest one. She owns one that hooks securely rather than ties with a string.) But they were going on a mission trip that required girls to wear one pieces or tankinis.
They held up suits for each other’s approval, giving a shrug or grimace. “Most one pieces are made for older people, and they come in just blue or black, or they have too much color,” Shelton said. They said they couldn’t find a trendy suit at Sears either. “It was bad,” Fleckenstein said, shaking her head.
So what’s a girl to do? Women of any size can find a suit online that fits their definition of modest. But they’ll have less success at the local mall.