A century of swimwear

For a hundred years, women have sought to strike a balance between getting a tan and staying within the bounds of decency. But oh, how things have changed. Susannah Frankel marvels at a century of swimwear

Saturday 22 October 2011 22:56

If 'taking the waters' has been perceived as both beneficial and entertaining since as far back as the notoriously pungent court of Elizabeth I, removing one's clothes while doing so is a more recent occurrence, particularly if one is female. The Virgin Queen and her odorous sidekicks entered the sulphurous pools at Bath fully dressed, of course. In Jane Austen's time, women wore white muslin gowns while bobbing up and down politely in that city's waters on a well-earned break from an arduous at-home piano recital, say, or some equally demanding embroidery project.

Later, in prudish Victorian Britain, with bathing the height of fashion following the rebuilding of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton by George IV, it was said that women were expected to wear more clothes to swim in the sea than they did for a promenade in the park. Modesty laws decreed that anything as provocative as the merest glimpse of bare flesh was not to be tolerated - cumbersome skirts, therefore, were weighed down with shot to ensure they didn't ride up in the water. To make doubly certain that all was just as it should be, suitably menacing officials scoured the pebbled beaches with tape measures carting off any poor soul who had the front to expose more of their lower leg than stipulated.

It took the First World War to overturn such values. The French resorts of Deauville and Biarritz were populated by women too fashion-conscious to stoop to anything as unattractive as the by-then requisite uniform of bloomers (and this despite the fact that bloomers appeared positively pragmatic compared to what had come before them). By the 1920s, Coco Chanel had decreed the suntan fashionable and set to crafting body-conscious swimwear in jersey - a fabric previously associated with nothing more haute than men's underwear - for women to ensure both ease of movement and style. In Hollywood, meanwhile, studio bosses employed Bathing Belles to promote their work. Men liked looking at women in their swimsuits, the powers that be in that city cunningly deduced, even if those swimsuits were still loose-fitting to the point of appearing clownish by European standards.

Perhaps more than any other garment, the swimming costume has changed almost out of recognition over the past hundred-odd years. A new book, The Swimsuit, published by Carlton Books this summer, does much to highlight this fact, as well as providing readers with impressively diverse swimwear facts. Did you know, for example, that in 1907 the Australian swimmer and 'underwater ballerina' Annette Kellerman was arrested in Boston, Massachusetts, for indecent exposure after wearing her swimming costume in public? Or that Speedo first appeared on the scene as far back as 1956, producing a nylon swimsuit for the Melbourne Olympics?

From the beaches of Biarritz to Baywatch, and from a footloose and fancy-free Marilyn Monroe soaking up rays at the outset of her career to a decidedly more knowing Elizabeth Hurley in diamanté and inky black techno-stretch, the following pages showcase some of this evocative garment's finest moments.


On page 27, we see an early example of Californian bathers frolicking in the sand in heavyweight knitted swimwear considered positively racy at the time. The Hollywood film industry was gathering momentum, which meant that on the West Coast of America decency laws were relaxed. Good news for women the world over - at least some of whose predecessors had died attempting to swim in the long, billowing skirts and elaborate corsetry that were the order of the day until the turn of the century.


Posing on the breakwater isn't what it used to be as this rather lovely creature just goes to prove (see page 26, top). Her knitted dress would have been attached to her tights to ensure it didn't ride up to reveal anything untoward, and rubber pumps also kept tights in place and sand out. One can only admire the woman in question for the fact that, given the none-too-comfortable nature of her attire (by today's standards), she is still smiling.


It wasn't until the 1930s that Hollywood recognised the full power of the swimsuit - read: the considerable impact of the world's most glamorous women appearing in ever more risqué states of undress. With this firmly in mind, Cole of California began collaborating with studio costumiers to produce swimwear for the stars, dressing the likes of Bette Davies and Joan Crawford (page 26, below), to name just two. In France, Elsa Schiaparelli patented her design for a backless swimming costume to promote even tanning. In America, Claire McCardell came up with a cut-out version on the theme - deemed the forerunner of the bikini.


Two-piece swimwear had, in fact, been around for a good decade before Louis Réard claimed to have invented it in 1946, as this picture (left, centre) of a still-brunette Marilyn Monroe in a bikini in the early 1940s goes to show. This portrait was taken by André De Dienes for the Blue Book modelling agency and confirms that swimwear is designed for more than just, well, just swimming. More than ten years later, the British actress Diana Dors drove that message home by appearing at the Venice Film Festival in a mink bikini.


The influence of Christian Dior's hour-glass New Look - a timely and extravagant reaction to war-time austerity if ever there was one - touched everything from the exclusive Paris ateliers to the beach. Should a woman not appear curvaceous enough to live up to the fashions of the day, the foundations of her clothing, however brief or casual they may be, would give her a helping hand. Pictured below, model Pat Hall shows off an apron-style bikini from the mid-Fifties with a fashionable gingham trim.


When Ursula Andress stepped out of the water in a white, under-wired bikini as Honey Ryder in Dr No (see page 28, top left), she resembled a new-and-improved Venus for the Swinging age. The youthful bow at the solar plexus, the strong-shouldered and snake-hipped silhouette and low-slung belt could only spring from that era. Any cultural context aside, this is perhaps the most celebrated swimwear moment of all time.


Although our image (bottom left on page 28) is actually from 1969, it perfectly encapsulates the 1970s to come. This, after all, was the era when the likes of Jerry Hall and Marie Helvin were photographed in barely-there swimwear at exotic destinations the world over. The expanse of mid-riff exposed is far greater than it previously had been.


In 1975, Christie Brinkley appeared in a Brazilian tanga by Giorgio di Saint'Angelo for Sports Illustrated. In 1981, the supermodel went still further, photographed once again for that magazine and wearing what looks (above left) like a particularly challenging X-back one-piece courtesy of Norma Kamali. If ever anything went to prove that this was the decade of the body-conscious, this must be it. Comfort is clearly not the issue.


Was there any full-blooded, heterosexual man who could resist Pamela Anderson as CJ (right) in the 1990s TV hit, Baywatch? Probably not. And this despite the fact that her swimsuit was positively demure - or at least as simple as it was possible for a swimsuit to be. And that, given that this was filmed with minimalism at its height, was precisely the point. It is safe to say that where the pneumatic Ms Anderson's good looks were concerned, no embellishment was necessary.


My, the humble swimsuit has come a long way, as this pin-up of Elizabeth Hurley (above right), shot for the cover of the glossy biannual fashion magazine POP, goes to show. This was Hurley's post-childbirth comeback, designed to prove, with a ferocity typical of our times and the help of a swimsuit that gives new meaning to the words 'second skin', that pregnancy had done nothing to diminish her charms. As for any clothing - or lack of it - involved, suffice it to say that Queen Victoria must surely be spinning in her grave.

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