When did the immodest bathing suit come into fashion? The idea of bathing in public places began in the 18th century as seaside vacations came into vogue. In the beginning, the favored mode of dress for the beach was even more modest than that of daily life: People wore bathing “costumes” — one dressed rather than undressed in approaching the water in the vicinity of strangers. Women sometimes put weights in the hems of their garments to make sure they wouldn’t ride up — if one drowned, one did so modestly. I especially like the 19th-century practice of having horse-drawn cabanas come to the edge of the ocean so that women could emerge unseen. No wet T-shirt contests for them.
If I were to choose my swimming apparel from another era, it would be the one I’ve seen featured from 1910: a two-piece jersey ensemble complete with stockings (wonderful for camouflaging cellulite). But even in the 1950s and early ’60s, there remained a minimal sort of propriety, helped by Mouseketeer Annette Funicello’s championship of the one-piece.
What happened? When did we throw pudeur to the winds?
We laugh at the old bathing costumes, but we should be laughing at ourselves. It’s a lot more ridiculous to see her thunder thighs and his man breasts. I acknowledge that as Americans we’re ahead of Europeans, who have reduced the bathing suit to a jock strap, for men and women alike. But just because Europeans act like damn fools doesn’t excuse us from being a few inches of spandex less foolish. Haven’t we learned anything about the Euro-capacity for knuckleheaded behavior after two world wars?
Rob Horning at Marginal Utility:
It seems crazy that bathing suits are so immodest. Why don’t we wear dignified bathing costumes like they did in the olden days? “We laugh at the old bathing costumes, but we should be laughing at ourselves. It’s a lot more ridiculous to see her thunder thighs and his man breasts.” Yes, there is something shameful about prurient self-display. Let’s close up the beaches until common decency returns!
Then I mentioned the article to a friend, and she said patiently that it would be extremely uncomfortable to actually try to swim in one of those Victorian get-ups, and that the reason swimsuits have become more immodest is in part because they are more functional that way. It’s not necessarily some crazed conspiracy to humiliate women concocted by the bathing-suit industrial complex. It’s quite possible that the article is entirely ironic.
[…] It’s easy to fall into the trap of conflating prudishness with proper respect for the mysteries of life, easy to imagine that widespread modesty might lead to a restoration of the link between sexual passion and some kind of holy transcendence like you read about in euphemistically engorged D.H. Lawrence novels. Maybe the bare ankle could again stoke the fire in the loins and heat our elemental urges and forge our link to the divine. Or maybe not. But the body of iconography that we know associate with the Victorian period—bathing costumes, etc.—exist to service those longings we may occasionally have for an era in which desire was more difficult to arouse and therefore must have seemed much more precious. Now, of course, an elaborate industry of persuasion and an ever-more infiltrative media apparatus works to keep us in a perpetual state of desiring from which it’s hard to garner relief. Victoriana offers a fantasy of escape into an era of less intensive marketing, where desire felt sacred because it was much easier to believe it was generated from deep within oneself.
Conor Friedersdorf at Sully’s place:
If by “unseemly” the author means that adults in bathing suits are transgressing against accepted standards, she is obviously wrong, and if she means something more — that the human body is inherently shameful, and needs to be more thoroughly covered — her argument is scarcely better. Humanity’s aesthetic preferences about weight and body type are variable as a matter of historical record. Social norms about nudity vary widely across time and culture. The fact that Americans embrace the two piece bikini, Europeans sunbathe topless without a fuss, and Saudi Arabia cloaks its women in the most modest garb imaginable refutes the notion that “modesty” is the marker of a healthy society.
Patrick Appel (at Sully’s)
Meh. What’s so wrong with a little skin?