Concealing and Revealing The Legacies of American Swimwear

Concealing and Revealing Gender Norms

The radicalization of women's swimwear throughout the 20th century was closely intertwined with the evolution in gender politics. The transformation of women’s swimwear from concealing to revealing --from 19th century “bathing gowns” that were long flannel dresses to provocative bikinis today-- must be analyzed in comparison to men’s swimwear of their respective historical contexts to understand the dichotomous double standards they reflected perpetuated.

Janice Biala on beach 1
1935
Janice Biala in swimsuit
1935

The 1920s marked the liberalization of both men’s and women’s swimwear, albeit according to stark double standards. As it became socially acceptable for men to bathe topless, meanwhile, for the sake of including women in sports, women’s bathing suits shrank to more practical wool-knit one-pieces. Tighter-fitting swimwear that allowed for greater movement was a tremendous milestone in women’s fashion, as, for the first time, function and comfort were prioritized over the societal expectation of concealing their bodies. Additionally, the rise of beauty pageants in the 1920s also popularized less conservative swimwear. In the first Miss America pageant in 1921 in Atlantic City, female adolescents gathered on the boardwalk in tight, wool one-piece swimsuits, and were judged by a panel of male judges; as this event infiltrated the media, similar swimwear became increasingly pervasive on the womenswear market.

This sleeveless, wool-knit, one-piece ladies’ bathing suit dates back to the 1920s and was later donated by Mrs. Dorothy Longnecker. The bathing suit consists of a tank top with a shirt attached to undershorts at the waist; the under-shorts extend approximately an inch past the skirt of the shirt. The black swimsuit has white trim at the neck and armhole and is embellished with four white stripes at the waist and pant legs. The straps are fastened with two buttons at the shoulder. The tag identifies that the swimsuit was made by “Neptune’s Daughter” and produced by the “Niagara Knitting Mills Corp.”

On July 5, 1946, French engineer Louis Reard revealed the first modern bikini at the Piscine Molitor swimming pool in Paris. He had constructed the garment out of less than 30 inches of fabric and called it the “world’s smallest bathing suit.” French showgirl and model Micheline Bernardini modeled the garment. Named after the Bikini Atoll, a site for post-war atomic bomb testing, the bikini became an instant hit. It immediately received 50,000 fan letters, mostly from men. Reard’s invention was a continuation of a twentieth century movement that sought to create more practical swimwear for women and to conserve fabric for military purposes. Although women accepted the bikini in France and Australia, the bikini did not enter mainstream America until the 1960s, as it was perceived as naughty and “unladylike.” This was largely reflective of the conservative post-war ideology imbued in American culture at the time: women had gained empowering new roles as workers, volunteers, and single parents as their husbands fought in the war. After the war, however, Americans wanted to recreate traditional families. Although the number of working women grew during the 1950s, Americans pressured them to conform to traditional gender roles. Many people criticized women who dressed in exposing clothing, believing they should wear “feminine” attire as stay-at-home moms. This image of conformity became apparent in the representation of women in magazines, billboards and television shows.

Waldorf Hysteria, Undated
1970...1979

In the early 1960s, though most Americans still found it too provocative, young women began to embrace this new garment. Mass marketing aimed primarily at men helped to popularize the bikini by the end of the decade (see an example of a punk flyer promoting a show at the Waldorf Hysteria). Part of the bikini’s appeal sprung from the fact that many women wanted to present themselves in a way that pleased men. They wanted to satisfy “the male gaze.”

Halter top, bikini bottom, tankini
2000
Halter top, bikini bottom, tankini
2000

Today, the bikini is a ubiquitous staple in women’s swimwear. This particular bikini top was designed by Cornell FSAD alum Malia Mills (Class of 1990). It is a plum-colored, halter style top in a size small. There are two-channel elastic horizontal bands positioned underneath the bust, providing adjustable support for the wearer. The lavender-colored halter strap is adjustable as well, and singular darts run up the sides of each cup of the triangular-shaped top for shape.The bikini top was sold individually, as opposed to in a set with a bikini bottom; this offers the wearer to mix-and-match pieces to reflect their own personal style or mood, but primarily serves the purpose of allowing wearers to purchase a top and bottom that fit well even if their sizes were different. In fact, Malia Mills swimwear is renowned for its “bra-sized fit,” which celebrates body inclusivity and empowerment with its attention to fit, comfort and high-fashion aesthetic. The brand utilizes swimwear to empower women to express themselves and feel confident in their own bodies. The brand pioneered an untapped market-- recognized for its edgy, luxurious styles, local, women-focused production and “Love Thy Differences” as the brand motto, Malia Mills has opened an inspiring dialogue on inclusivity and fit innovation in swimwear.