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Fashion in American Popular Culture

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Modesty and exhibitionism. Freedom and constraint. Labor and leisure. Yin and yang. The history of the American bathing suit ricochets between these antithetical urges in the national psyche - a tension that has kept the tides of seaside fashion roiling back and forth for over a century, concealing and revealing, tugged in opposing directions as if by the lusty sun and the mild, demurring moon. 

As the nineteenth century waned, it was the moon that signaled elegance and romance. The sun might wilt the fragile flower of privileged femininity or, heaven forbid, incite brain fever. Bathers flocked to beaches and spas for a timid soak in the rejuvenating waters, then immediately covered up with broad-brimmed hats and gloves and flowered parasols. 

For women, swimming was out of the question. Seaside beauties paraded beneath the weight of Victorian morality and layers of muslin that would have sunk them like waterlogged peacocks. Thus fashion perpetuated the myth that "ladies don't like to swim."

A nineteenth-century woman of fashion might preserve both pallor and decorum by engaging a bathing machine, a horse-drawn covered wagon with a water-permeable floor and steps descending into a well. Here, bathers might strip off corsets and bustles and petticoats to paddle in privacy, as the contraption rumbled into the sea. 

Late in the century, Yankee ingenuity contrived a more elaborate machinery to complicate further the homely act of immersing oneself in water. The Hamm Self-Propelling Steamer came equipped with "private bathing cells" resembling sunken phone booths. A subsequent "Ship for Bathing Purposes" added larger soaking galleries and "private dressing chambers." But what did our bashful bather wear? Let us leave her at the chamber door and only imagine her state of deshabille, for the modern bathing suit had not yet been invented. 

As the twentieth century dawned, the bathing machine clattered off into history, but not because Americans were prepared to bare their knees. Those were the “olden days” when “a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking,” as the nostalgic Cole Porter song goes. So, the first bathing suit designers sought still more ingenious ways to assemble the elements of dress that modesty demanded. U.S. patent files include an early one-piece suit for women with stockings, corset, drawers, blouse and ankle boots - “all permanently attached.” The male version was a pair of neck-to-ankle long johns augmented with belts, stripes and pockets to fend off any association with underwear. The dread of being seen in one’s drawers was a national phobia - one that would persist long enough to rebuff invading fashion waves from Europe such as two-piece suits, bikinis, and later topless bathing.

While bolder American beach-goers were sneaking their comforts - a deliciously undraped shoulder, a surreptitiously rolled-up pantaloon - the stewards of propriety were busily drafting local sumptuary laws: women must not expose their legs on the beach; suits might not expose the bosom below a line level with the armpits. The Modesty Police, skulking beneath the boardwalk, prepared to pounce at the first gleam of thigh or glimmer of cleavage.

In the postwar 1920s, sunlight streamed into the national psyche. Automobiles and mass transportation popularized summer travel. A “healthy tan” was becoming an emblem, not of salubrious farm life, but of excursions south or outings to the beach. “The sun is life,” declared a train company advertisement. And New York Health Commissioner Dr. Shirley Wynne certified it: “The sun is the greatest bottle of medicine in the universe.”

Although experiments in nudism or “naturism” that captured the European imagination never caught on in mainstream America, the fledgling American beachwear industry exploited a popular association of sun, nudity, and health. “And now, God knows, anything goes!” belted out Ethel Merman as the one-piece suit emerged, first for men, then for women, progressively exposing the legs and arms to become a sleeveless tunic joined at the waist to trunks. This daring precursor of the tank suit gave rise to “that airy but strictly legal sense,” Harper’s Bazaar pronounced, “of wearing nothing at all.”

Here was a suit in which women and men alike could actually swim. The Jantzen company promoted local “Learn to Swim” campaigns with the “Red Diving Girl” as its logo. Body arched, bare arms outstretched, the Jantzen girl plunged into popular culture, becoming the first mass-produced pin-up. Amidst civic grumbling about “scarlet bathing ladies,” the diving girl appeared on patches, posters and decals. As a popular hood ornament for Model T Fords, she drove motorists to swerving distraction in her high socks, pom-pommed hat, and clingy red one-piece that half-revealed a nubile thigh.

The basic one-piece kept shrinking throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Arm holes grew. Back cuts plunged to the waist to permit a more extensive tan. Meanwhile, the newly popular topless suits for men were making waves of their own. A 1935 Atlantic City ordinance banned them, decreeing: “No gorillas on our beaches.”

Alas, though, by the following year the gorillas had stormed the seawalls and were bronzing in hirsute glory from sea to shining sea. The sun gazed down on the transformation of seaside attire from a set of contrivances that camouflaged the human form into a softer knit garment that hugged the body’s natural curves. But not for long. The Second World War would reverse the tide of fashion once again and revive the Victorian impulse to buttress and bolster the female body into an hourglass ideal.

The war that kept American men overseas and sent many women to the factories in overalls would also arouse a longing for fantasy and glamour. In fashion, though, the ideal again overwhelmed the real. By the end of the war, the serviceable knit bathing suit had given way to a corseted and cantilevered feat of engineering whose deeper psychic purpose was to generate the baby boom and replenish our tattered species.

Fictional curves were back. Padding and corsetry were back. The military engineers had returned as well, and wartime technology was now at the service of domestic enterprise.

Armed with under-wiring, uplift bras, panels, stays and elastics, the fashion industry renewed its assault on the female body. While men lounged comfortably in boxer-style trunks, women shoehorned themselves into swimsuits that simultaneously offered the impossible curves of a fertility goddess and the itchy discomfort of a hair-shirted penitent. In 1948 Vogue magazine advertised a strapless suit “bared to the 24th vertebra,” wired, padded, pleated, and ruffled all over - a look the magazine labeled as “almost chaste.”

Almost chaste. The concept wasn’t lost on the movies. Hollywood combined the new synthetic curves with the old Jantzen Girl athleticism and came up with Esther Williams. The formula was irresistible to postwar America: curvy sensuality flecked with chlorinated dew. It kept Williams splashing through more than a dozen all but plotless movies in the 1940s and 1950s, prompting Fanny Brice to observe: “Wet, she’s a star. Dry, she ain’t.”

In the same postwar era, returning soldiers’ tales of exotic tropical paradises propelled bathing fashion in two opposing directions. On the one hand, the exotic meant freedom, innocence, and delectable fruit-colored prints. On the other hand, it evoked the specter of forbidden fruits and license - a specter that materialized at a Paris fashion show in 1946. Named for Bikini Atol, the site of postwar A-bomb tests, the bikini exploded across European beaches, but bombed here at home. Americans had put up with the gradual exposure of ankle, calf and thigh with sturdy forbearance, but we were not prepared to countenance bare navels. That advance required nearly fifteen years and the youth rebellion of the 1960s.

By then, the first wave of babies begotten upon the cantilevered bosom were approaching puberty. The beach became an arena for generational confrontation in the sixties; baring skin was one of the milder forms of testing parental authority. The bikini had arrived, but not without American designers’ fevered attempts to domesticate it with bows and ruffles and appliquéd daisies. They dubbed this version “the bikini with a conscience.”

Hollywood cashed in on both the cleavage and the generation gap. In more than a hundred 1960s beach movies, however, filmmakers made sure to weave in old-fashioned American morality. Frankie Avalon kicked up sand in two-piece cabana suits amid throngs of bikini-clad beach bunnies. The bunnies got ogled, but Annette - the curvy-yet-chaste girl next door - got Frankie. Why? A fast-forward survey of the genre reveals the answer: Walt Disney had stipulated it in Annette’s contract: The heroine always wore a one-piece.

Thus, even the sun-drenched 1960s weren’t immune to the restraining tug of the moon. Recall, if your memory’s long, a 1960s pop music classic: “She wore an itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie, yellow polka-dot bikini.” She wore it, but, minding the voice of municipal order echoing down the decades, she was, in the words of the song, “afraid to come out of the water.”

Experiments with partial nudity dotted the 1960s and 1970s. The topless monokini was a highlight, more for the reaction it elicited than for its negligible impact on our seaside landscape. Invariably modeled by flat-chested Twiggies, the 1964 monokini was an exact copy of a popular little boys’ swimsuit from the 1930s: scanty black knit trunks, bare above the waist except for suspenders that tapered from the waist between the breasts to form an immaculate “V.” The topless suit was debated, picketed, and even denounced in the Vatican press as a by-product of the “industrial-erotic adventure.” Lord and Taylor’s ordered up a batch for its Manhattan store. Then the manager, coming to his senses, insisted that this breast-baring icon of middle-class decadence be “sealed up immediately and shipped to the poor.” Modern day bathing suit scandals have been more legal than moral: Just last year the U.S. Patent and Trade office rejected an attempt to register a padded sling called “The Scrotal Support Garment,” citing a neon-green model worn by Sacha Baron Cohen in his 2006 film, Borat, as evidence that the design wasn’t original.

In the 1960s and 1970s Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue promoted the marriage of glamour, sports, and the exercise studio—a marriage that thrived in the 1980s and 1990s. “No pain, no gain,” shouted Jane Fonda. To Americans, that was an old story. But now, at least, women weren’t expected to be emaciated Twiggies or to lounge by the sea in fashionable straightjackets. The wide range of 1990s styles included softer, more liberating swimsuits often indistinguishable from exercise attire. Indeed, one might have mused, amid the clank and hiss of exercise equipment, that seaside fashion, which had begun more than a century earlier with the horse-drawn bathing machine, had come full circle and was once again wedded to machinery.

Since the turn of the century, technological advancement has produced such innovations as Optical Illusion Swimwear (offering, not corsetry but ingenius color shading to create a “false or deceptive visual impression” of an hourglass figure); The Pixillated Nude Swimsuit (designed to look like a woman with censored parts); The Protovoltaic Swimsuit (wired to generate electricity and turn the wearer into a walking iPod - “Don’t use it in the water.”); the swimsuit with a UV meter built into the fabric; and The Electronic Shark Deterrent, an embedded watch-size apparatus that generates “high voltage periodic bursts” of electricity to repel the Elasmobranchi subclass.”

But the low-tech Yankee tinkerers are still out there. Nestled among recent U.S. patents for a Rotating Ice cream Cone, a Horse-Powered Automobile, and The Three-Legged Panty Hose (deploying a spare when the wearer gets a run), are such low-tech innovations as the Bikini with Attached Bottle Opener and The Swimsuit with Inflatable Bra. One Delaware inventor, protesting that swimsuits give “no visible appearance that the bather is associated with a natural habitat,” has contrived a two-piece made of bunched-up, stitched-together natural sponges. The effect is absorbing if wildly inelegant: Venus Rising from the Marsh.

Undoubtedly, the sun is now in ascendance in American fashion, but bathing still offers pockets of modesty. American Muslims can shop online for “shariah-compliant swimwear” in the form of the two-piece Burkini, offering head-to-toe covering. A fast-food version of the nineteenth-century bathing machine, The Inflatable Changing Room, is currently available for “privacy in outdoor environments.” And from Massachusetts comes a modest solution to another age-old dilemma: “When a swimmer wishes to swim in the nude,” the inventor laments, “it is often necessary to disrobe on the shore and then to dash rapidly towards the water to avoid being seen.” He thus proposes The Swimsuit with Flotation Device Attached. Seized with an urge to bathe in the nude, but restrained by the centuries-long tradition of moonlit modesty, the contemporary American woman leaps into the surf, peels off the suit, and watches it drift to the surface. Abandoning fashion to bob with the tides, our bather plunges on, recklessly, into the dazzling, sunlit sea.

November 2013

From guest contributor Carolyn Kraus

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