Concealing and Revealing The Legacies of American Swimwear

Concealing and Revealing Production

Within swimwear’s extensive history, there is a long line of innovation in production and performance. Swimwear not only reveals and conceals aspects of our identity, but also can reveal how new technologies allow garments to graduate from their aesthetic properties to having full-fledged utility. The irony that accompanies this endless string of innovation is, while many women can now enjoy these advancements, these processes also stem from the abhorrent working conditions that women were exposed to. Behind every new marvel in swimwear is the culmination of decades of arduous work from skilled women who relied on low-paying manufacturing jobs to survive.

Woman smiling in swimming pool on Fire Island trip
1981...1986

Swim Caps have a deep and interesting historical significance. Swim caps as we know them today first hit the scene back in 1883 when rubber was invented. Prior to that, cloth or silk bonnets were used to cover ladies heads when in and around the water. While most every woman desired to keep her hairstyle covered when out in the elements, the elite in society were known to have the most ornate bathing or swimming caps. It’s for this reason that the swim cap quickly became a must-have fashion accessory that would later become popularized by the likes of Miuccia Prada.

White rubber swim cap
1950...1960

This swim cap is dated from the 1950s to 1960s and was donated by Susan Wiese Greene. It features a molded mark inside that reads “Sea Siren Pretty Products.” It represents the necessities of swimming during that time, particularly in high school physical education. It was important to keep chlorine out of your hair and hair out of the pool drain. In many ways, the swimming cap is the epitome of performance and fashion.

Alternative swimwear fabrics such as velvet, leather, and crocheted squares surfaced in the early ’70s. Given the manufacturing technology of the time, producing a crocheted garment was not as cost-effective and much more time consuming than producing a standard bikini. Swimsuits sought to be sexier and chicer, and the crochet body helped to achieve that look. While the very silhouette of the bikini was considered to be fashionable on its own, the crochet make-up makes it even more desirable.

This bikini is dated from 1966 and was donated by Charlotte A. Jirousek, an Associate Professor of Textiles and Apparel at the Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design at the College of Human Ecology. Manufactured by High Tide, it features a brown crocheted make-up, halter shape, and tied around the neck and in the back.

Both of these pieces represent the epitome of innovation, quality, and design within swimwear. However, each of these descriptors is tied to one thing: manufacturing. While swimwear reveals the benefits of manufacturing through advancements in performance, it also conceals the labor that went into making these garments.

Here are two well-known historical instances of protest and strike within bathing suit manufacturing. These strikes, including the Milbury Atlantic Manufacturing Company and Gantner and Mattern, demonstrate the other side of the conceal/reveal dialectic for performance swimwear. Behind every innovation, there is a longstanding history of struggle and oppression.