Easkey Britton is a well-known Irish surfer, marine social scientist and author. In her book Saltwater in the Blood, there is a paragraph that begins: “A woman recently wrote to me from Iran: ‘I finally understood the most important skill for surfing – connecting with Mother Ocean. Believe it or not, it changed my whole being.
Britton was the first person to surf in Balochistan, a rural coastal province of Iran. She then set up the Be Like Water program, which helped spark a passion for surfing among Iranian women and girls who had never accessed the ocean before. Developed by British and Iranian premier triathlete Shirin Gerami, those first steps in the water are documented in the 2016 film Into the Sea.
The experience sparked a plan to develop a safe, culturally appropriate and functional surfwear solution for women. And after almost a decade in development, Cornish surfwear company Finisterre, who Britton works with as brand ambassador, have just launched the Seasuit for sale. Britton and the Finisterre team now know that the Seasuit has a much wider application than originally imagined.
“We got so many ideas from so many people who show a diversity of needs that weren’t being met – especially around body image in the water – from size to scars, tenderness in the sun to sex,” Britton says.
The Seasuit is a one-piece design with a crossover feature attached to an inner panel at the back, with an integrated bra. It can be worn over a wetsuit, bathing suit, or plain underneath, and features dolman sleeves and harem-style baggy pants for a loose yet concealed fit. The pattern of the fabric is designed to further conceal the contours of the body.
Britton says the surf industry has been slow to develop functional products beyond the bikini or cold-water suit – something she struggled with herself as a competitive surfer and conscious teenager of herself. “Surfing has a very exclusive image,” says Britton. “It’s very white, masculine and economically privileged. It’s starting to change, but women have also been hypersexualized in the surf media. . . and what women wear seems to be such a debating point for so many people.
The response to the Seasuit has been overwhelmingly positive, she says, especially from women in places like Sri Lanka and the Maldives where surfing is a relatively new sport. But wearing coveralls can also be controversial. In France, for example, the wearing of the burkini in public swimming pools has become a contentious and political issue.
“It’s a complex question,” says Britton. “But it’s about giving people the choice of how they want to be in the world, what they want to wear. Why not have the option of having something more modest, if that puts you more comfortable? In places where it is very restrictive, by not offering it [a product like the Seasuit] women never get the chance to go into the ocean. For me, it’s about helping people do what they want by giving them more choice.
Niamh O’Laoighre is Head of Product Development at Finisterre and one of the lead designers for the Seasuit project. Originally from Co Wexford, her family moved to the UK when she was 10. She leads a team of developers and apparel technologists who support products from the design phase to shipping the final garment.
Finisterre designs typically don’t involve as intense a consultation as the Seasuit, says O’Laoighre. “This product was very different. It was born out of a cultural need, so we had to take a lot of advice and consideration when making it. It had to be absolutely fit for purpose, and we had to make sure we were doing justice to the product and to the people who needed it.
“In Iran, where this product was born, there are a lot of limitations for women having access to water sports. The suit had to be culturally appropriate. But what was interesting is that while we started with a specific objective, by ticking a box, we also tick a lot of boxes for a lot of other people.
O’Laoighre says the response to the product has been eye-opening.
“A lot of people ask for it for reasons beyond culture — for example, women going through cancer treatment who are sensitive to sunlight and need to keep their body and scalp covered,” says O’ Laoighre.
The Finisterre Foundation has a “buy one, give one” program whereby for every combination purchased, one will be donated. Individual applicants and groups can register an application.
The company worked with Falmouth University, where a design for Synne Knutson’s garment was selected and then developed by Rachel Preston from Finisterre. A design by Ayesha King of Plymouth College of Art became the starting point for the print used on the final garment. “It’s rare that something students work on in college actually gets released to market, so it’s a fantastic achievement for students,” says O’Laoighre.
The Seasuit is made from Seaqual, a sustainable fabric made from marine and post-consumer plastic, with a global recycling standard certification. “There is a chain of custody that means that every moment of production, it must meet a certification – from the raw material to the spinner, from the dyer to the fabric itself”, explains O’Laoighre.
The design has been tested by surfers and cold water swimmers, and tweaked many times to ensure optimal performance. The costume initially had a built-in hood as well.
“During the development process, we realized that if you didn’t need the hood, it would be lying around in the water,” says O’Laoighre. “We then developed the suit to be compatible with a separate hijab. There are many culturally appropriate products, but I think the Seasuit is unique. It’s the kind of product you don’t even know you have. you miss him until you see him, so hopefully this will be a game changer in people’s lives.
The Seasuit can indeed be a game-changer for Arooj Shah. As a young Muslim woman living in Bradford, Yorkshire (with parents in Galway), she has been active since childhood – riding as a child, and later in college, kickboxing, archery, rock climbing and scuba diving.
Shah says it’s important for her to dress modestly when playing sports in mixed settings. While she never saw that as a barrier to the sport — indeed, it was a great conversation starter at times — it did come with some challenges. In scuba diving, for example, she had to cobble together a “Frankenstein outfit” out of leggings, a long-sleeved top and a baggy basketball kit. “It was a challenge to find something that I felt comfortable and modest enough in,” she says.
She says it takes a “certain amount of bravery” to get involved in water sports as a Muslim woman. “I can’t say that it was easy for me to join a scuba diving group and be the only person dressed from head to toe. It’s not malicious, but people watch because they’re curious, so it takes courage. The great thing about the suit is that it intentionally looks ‘fit for purpose’,” she laughs. “You don’t just look like you forgot your bathing suit.”
“To see all the elements come together so beautifully – the pattern, the design, the fabric and the ethos – is amazing,” Britton recalls. “It’s about creating a really positive impact for women and getting in the water and doing what we love.”