Cover Up


Photo: Getty Images

Burkini: If you’ve been in seclusion for the past month, you might be excused for wondering if Burkini were inhabitants of Burkina Faso, or maybe Italian devotees of the Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke.

No less improbably, the burkini  — a new name for full beachside covering worn by observant Muslim women and others —  has become a flashpoint in (what else is new?) the regulation of women’s wear in public.

The term burkini — also spelled burqini — combines burqa and bikini. The garment was designed by Aheda Zanetti, a Lebanese-born Australian, who has invented other mediating garments and given them portmanteau names. The hijood, a garment that combines hijab and hood, is another of her creations. For crafting hijood and burkini, Zanetti  counts as both fashionista and wordsmith.

Words, however, take on their own lives when they leave the nest. Where the bikini (named for the Pacific atoll on which the A-bomb was tested) was a minimalist bombshell, the burkini  has emerged as a designation for what to some is a maximalist offense.

The fear of overdressed women may be a new wrinkle in men’s centuries-long program of deciding what women may or may not wear. In a recent New York Times article, Alissa J. Rubin assesses what the burkini means for France and for Muslim women.

The idea of a cover-up at the beach is, of course, nothing new. Women of many ages, and certainly many north of an impossible-to-pinpoint threshold, may choose (or not) to opt for fuller covering at seaside — pareos, sarongs, and things that I guess just get called wraps. In this instance, a cover-up (noun) is a garment that shields the body from sun and public view.

The sense of cover as meaning to shield or conceal dates to the Middle Ages. The more specific sense “to wrap up so as to conceal, to cover over,” however, dates only to 1872.

The Oxford English Dictionary  offers a clutch of examples of cover-up —  meaning to conceal a crime — though the selected passages are from the 1920s. The whole idea of an illegal  and therefore secret cover-up is very Raymond Chandler-y.  In a good mystery, a break-in might require a cover-up, at least to stir the plot and throw the reader off the scent. The cover-up was hush-hush, one might have said in the Jazz Age.

Absent from the OED’s linguistic parade of furtiveness is the cover-up of the Watergate scandal that shook Washington and the nation in the early 1970s, when the Nixon administration backed and sought to cover up its operatives’ shenanigans at another party’s  headquarters.

“John Dean has told Watergate investigators that he has discussed the Watergate cover-up with President Nixon at least 35 times,” reported the Washington Post, summarizing its coverage in a sober timeline of sad political maneuvering.

As to the very different seaside cover-up, the French will resolve for themselves the question of public mores and private swimming costume.

The fuss over the burkini  may go the way of the earlier scandal of the bikini — initially startling but finally part of the seashore’s garment ecology.

And that would leave only sunscreen manufacturers to cry “foul!”



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