humorpop culture

The Bathing Suit: From Wherever Did It Come?
by Marjorie Dorfman

Beaches have drawn humans to their salty emerald waters since the beginning of time. Swimwear, however, is another story, not quite as alluring or salty. In ancient times, bathing was a nude affair. In some settings, coverings were utilized. Evidence gleaned from murals at Pompeii and Crete, for example, depict women wearing two-piece suits covering their breast and hips in a manner strikingly similar to the modern bikini. Somehow however, the notion of special water apparel was tossed away with the apparel. In other bare words, for millenniums untold, people bathed tutto nudo and a buffo, to boot. What changed and why? Read the naked truth here. Now.

The beach has been a source of amusement and respite from the oppressive heat of summer for centuries. In the 1700s, women were known to wear "bathing gowns" in the water. These long dresses made of fabric would not become transparent when wet and weights were sewn into the hems so that they would not rise in water (How could anything, including the swimmer, one might ask.) Men wore a rather form-fitting, wool (ugh!) garment with long sleeves and legs similar to long underwear. This look did not change for more than a century.

Long before the itsy, bitsy, teeny-weeny bikini, suntan lotion and the Beach Boys, people ventured under the sun for all the joys to be found there. As railroads closed the gap between cities and waterfront, and the age of industrialization created more leisure time, ocean-side resorts became more and more popular during the warmer months of the year. Along with this new pastime, came the need for stylish garments for those privileged ladies of fashion.

In the 19th century, women began to wear two-piece suits, which were composed of a gown that extended from shoulder to knees plus a set of trousers with leggings going down to the ankles. (One can only wonder why mufflers and gloves weren’t part of the ensemble.) The more popular beach resorts during the Victorian era were equipped with bathing machines (cabanas that were horse-drawn out into the water), which provided privacy and avoided exposure of people changing into swimsuits especially to people of the opposite sex. (Heaven forbid!)

The early twentieth century brought about some changes in women’s swimwear, but they came externally from the "land down under." In 1907, Australian swimmer and "underwater ballerina," Annette Kellerman, visited the United States. Her act involved synchronized swimming and diving into glass tanks. Due to the fact that her swimsuit had the bare audacity to reveal arms, legs and her neck, she was arrested for indecent exposure. (Her neck, legs and arms really should have known better!) As a result, she altered her suit so that it had longer arms and legs and a collar as well, but retained the close fit that revealed her shape underneath. She later starred in a few movies, even one about her life.

Soon after, bathing apparel began to expose arms and then legs, up to mid-thigh. Collars receded with the tide from around the neck down to around the top of the bosom. New fabrics allowed for varieties of comfortable and practical swimwear, some of it more revealing than ever before. Young women of the 1920s were liberated forever from long, stifling skirts and dipped into figure-hugging, wool jersey sleeveless tank suits that were as inviting as the cool ocean waters. These early suits were ideal for the athletic (not too bosomy) figure, and they greatly resembled the male swimming costumes of an earlier era.

Although these swimsuits marked a drastic disparity from the restricted bathing apparel of the past, they were not flattering to the female form, stopping at mid thigh. Just in case voyeurs lurked beneath the waters, the ensemble included a pair of built-in modesty shorts. There was also no thought given to flattering colors or style,s as these suits were often designed with dramatic abstract patterns or stripes, which drew attention to body "trouble spots" by taking the eye directly to them. (It was like asking someone not to look up to see a nasty crack in the ceiling, which of course immediately draws all eyes upward.)

The swimsuit of the 1920s often had a cutout section in the midriff panel but this disappeared as it evolved into a two-piece garment. The bathing cap of the 1920s was not only ideally suited to the popular "bobbed’ hair cuts, but was also very similar to the cloche hats in vogue at the time. As the 1920s disappeared, feminine, cotton printed bathing suits with little skirts to hide the thighs gradually replaced older unflattering versions. The swimsuits of the 1930s bore some semblance to many of the suits today. Hollywood stars glamorized the latest fashions. Dorothy Lamour and her sarong managed to remain snug around her ample bosom as she cavorted across the globe with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Esther Williams a bit later brought attention to attractive bathing caps and figure-hugging beach costumes as well as those old musical films featuring synchronized aqua swimming.

Corsets were going out of style and manufacturers sought a way to increase production and revenue sometime during the 1940s. The new, more revealing swimsuits really needed help in a design that would hide the flaws in a woman’s shape. They succeeded by introducing stretch tummy control panels, which held in the stomach. Bra cups and boning supported the bust. Now bathing suits could be worn either strapless or with small straps that buttoned onto the inside.

Glamour photography, exemplified by the sensual, figure-hugging nature of these garments, often featured stars wearing bathing suits. (Remember Lana Turner in that white number in The Postman Rings Twice? Ooh-la-la!) Eventually, this art evolved into swimsuit photography. During the 1950s, women still continued to wear all-in-one swimsuits and they took great care to cover up their hairstyles with a swimming cap or bathing cap. Often too, the head was fashionably kept well out of the water while swimming (no easy feat).

The first bikinis were introduced shortly after World War II and were named after Bikini Atoll, the site of several nuclear weapons tests. The moniker signifies the supposed explosive effect on the viewer. Early examples of them, however, were not explosive at all; in fact, they were not very different from the two-piece women’s suits prevalent since the 1920s, except for the fact that they had a gap below the breast line allowing for a bare midriff section.

Throughout the 1950s, the bikini had to come up high enough to cover the navel. Even those innocuous beach movies of the day had all navels covered and accounted for. But something happened in the 1960s that shrank the bikini in all directions until all that was not exposed were nipples and genitalia. Some less revealing models did remain in vogue and these gave more support to the breasts. The bikini was considered risqué and best suited to the bodies of film stars and exotic dancers. During this time period, fashion designer, Rudy Gernreich, introduced the monokini to an ever-growing naked world. This topless suit for women consisted of a modest bottom supported by two thin straps and although it was not a commercial success, it transformed design possibilities.

Until the early 1960s, zips were used in the centre back of swimsuits, which retained a corset-like appearance. The suits of the 1950s and 1960s were cut straight across the top of the leg creating a modesty apron that hid the separate matching fabric crotch. Soon, this became old hat and was replaced with the advent of new fabrics, namely nylon and Lycra. These new synthetics allowed for stretch and pull, and now the front panel of the garment and the crotch were cut as one. Other variations included pleated or flared skirts cosmetically targeted to cover bad looking thighs. By the late 1960s, swimsuits had revealing side mesh net panels or cut out midriffs filled in with see-through plastic rings.

The thong or "tanga" came out of Brazil in the 1980s, supposedly inspired by the traditional garments of native tribes in the Amazon (not the web site; the river). The one piece still held its modest ground and continued to be popular. During the 1980s, men’s swimwear developed roughly in parallel to women, with shorts becoming as sparse as the world would allow, assigned to the only area worthy of covering, namely the family jewels. Racing-style "speedo" suits, thongs and G-strings were worn, but mostly in tropical regions along the coastline of the West, South, Southeast United States, Caribbean Islands, Western Europe and the Mediterranean. During the 1990s, however, the longer and baggier shorts became popular, and some of them actually reached to the knees! (Talk about a change in attitude!)

The one piece adjusted to bikini competition by abbreviating it even further by cutting the legs higher as well as straight across. What was considered a high leg in the 1970s is a lot higher now and, in fact couldn’t be much higher if it tried. Many women still prefer the thick-waisted, one-piece look. Even slimmer figures sometimes look better in the one-piece and for many, it is more comfortable. One big change that has made women much more comfortable is the availability of cup sizes. Gottex swimwear is particularly known for this as well as the clever cutting and stretch control tummy panels, which create a good silhouette. These suits run over 80 £ (160 + US dollars).

Today the choices in swimwear are many, although it has taken centuries for comfort to be established as a significant part of the enjoyment the beach has to offer. So whether you need a big shirt or sarong to make your way to that kiosk ten yards away or not even a thong as you pass oglers named Tom and otherwise, remember that the bathing suit you wear (or choose not to wear) has a long and noble history. This is the bare truth, no matter how you may secretly feel about nylon and Lycra.

Happy Beach!

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Copyright 2008