Concealing & Revealing: The Legacies of American Swimwear explores and analyzes the paradoxical history of swimwear in relation to American gender politics throughout the 20th century. The exhibition is curated by undergraduate students Livia Caligor (‘21), Gunner Park (‘21), and Karelia Jaramillo (‘22) in Dr. Denise Green’s “Curating Fashion Exhibitions” course, which is part of the Cornell Society for the Humanities 2020-2021 “Fabrication” theme. Concealing & Revealing is a digital exhibition that considers the nuanced social, cultural, and economic implications of women’s bathing suits, leading up to the emancipation of swimwear in the 60s and 70s. The incredible collection of swimsuits from the Cornell Fashion & Textile Collection are supplemented with advertisements, photos, and articles that provide historical context for this transition and are sourced from “The Home Economics Archive: Research, Tradition, and History” and Cornell University Library's "Division of Rare and Manuscript Collection."
In the 1960s, the rise of provocative dress as a fashion trend in the United States coincided with a feminist reawakening. This second wave of feminism advocated for more rights for women, such as control over their sexuality and reproductive rights. One group of radical Women’s Liberationists attacked the fashion industry as patriarchal and degrading. Female defenders of the new fashions, however, argued that body-baring garments provided a novel opportunity for sexual expression. To this day, historians of fashion and historians of women’s studies view the impact of fashion on women’s liberation differently. For a long time, historians of women’s studies asserted that sexualized fashion furthered male objectification of the female body. Although they make valid claims, they fail to acknowledge that revealing fashions also empower women by providing opportunities for sexual expression. The evolution of women’s swimwear from 18th century “bathing gowns” to two-piece bikinis especially epitomizes this paradox.
Concealing and Revealing explores this ongoing tension in women’s swimwear between empowerment and appropriation in five contexts: The Body, Production, Leisure, Gender Norms, and Intersectionality.
The Body strives to convey the dichotomous implications of body-bearing women’s swimwear, as it both offers a venue for sexual expression and perpetuates the sexualization of women’s bodies.
Production reveals a longstanding history of exploitation and protest behind some of swimwear’s greatest innovations.
Leisure chronicles the aesthetic elements of increasingly sexualized swimwear and the gendered limitations that came with self-expression over functionality.
Gender Norms showcases swimsuits that symbolize the double standards of women’s swimwear present in their respective cultural context.
Intersectionality seeks to acknowledge the lack of minority representation present in the history of women’s swimwear. It addresses the heteronormative, ableist, and classist implications of women’s swimwear and opens a dialogue about recent milestones in American swimwear that have helped to diversify the industry.
From a women’s canvas swim tunic and men’s wool-knit swimsuit from the early 1900s to a “topless bathing suit” from the 1970s and a Nike hijab swimsuit today, the exhibition strives to address the dichotomies between persistent gender dynamics reflected in and perpetuated by the swimwear industry.
CURATORS: Livia Caligor (Fiber Science and Apparel Design ‘21), Gunner Park (Fiber Science and Apparel Design ‘21), and Karelia Jaramillo (Communication ‘22)
EXHIBITION WEBSITE: Gunner Park ‘21
PHOTOS: Grace Anderson, Karelia Jaramillo ‘22, Livia Caligor ‘21
FACULTY ADVISOR: Professor Denise N. Green ‘07
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: We would like to extend a special thank you to everyone who has donated pieces to the Cornell Fashion + Textile Collection, thereby allowing us to present our exhibition to vast audiences. We would also like to express our gratitude to the various Cornell collections from which we have chosen artifacts and mostly, to Dr. Denise N. Green ‘07, who has provided us with such an educational and fascinating experience.