Concealing and Revealing The Legacies of American Swimwear

Concealing and Revealing Leisure

Advertisement for Jantzen as seen in Vogue

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, swimming finally became an acceptable leisure activity for women. However, this development resulted in swimwear that emphasized fashion over functionality. Swim costumes were made increasingly sexual, becoming a limitation to bathing and splashing around in the water rather than swimming. Male designers continued to believe that practical swimwear would compromise women's purity and modesty. The pieces in this section highlight the period of revealing women to the leisurely acts of swimming, while concealing the functionality of swimwear.

In the 1920s and 30s, women's bathing suits shrank to wool-knit one pieces, for the sake of practicality and inclusion of women in the now accepted activity of leisure swimming. Yet wool's heavy and thick nature limited women while swimming. Jantzen, a leading swimwear brand of the 20th century, was a popular manufacturer of wool suits, their famous slogan being "The suit that changed bathing to swimming". However, Jantzen famously advertised their pieces for a woman's leisure day at the beach.

This blue knit wool one-piece is dated from the 1940s and was donated by Susan Wiese Greene after being bought from the Olean (NY) Antiques Center in 1994. Manufactured by Jantzen, the suit features the brand's symbol of a diving lady over the left leg opening.

Two piece suits were fairly common in the years leading up to World War II, yet they usually covered a woman's navel, leaving only a small section of the midriff visible. This period also brought about bathing suits that accentuated the female figure, using bra cups and tummy control panels.

This white canvas two-piece is dated from the 1940s and was donated by Patricia Orr, used by Billijean Heneghan. The decorative tie at the front center between the breasts, as well as the laced sides of the bottoms, emphasize the use of this suit for leisure and fashion rather than functionality.

These two pieces highlight the increase of glamour among women's swimsuits as leisure swimming became an acceptable activity for women. Yet these pieces also demonstrate the lack of functionality among these suits. These garments show off and accentuate the female body, yet continue to have little use for actual swimming as sport, continuing to highlight the standards for women in the 20th century.