Concealing and Revealing The Legacies of American Swimwear

Concealing and Revealing the Body

The most obvious interpretation of reveal and conceal through swimwear is through the literal exposure of the human body. When we often think about this exposure in regards to gender norms—where women are expected to cover their torso and hips, while men only cover the latter. This dichotomy is emblematic of society’s inherent desire to suppress the expression of women. For a long time, historians of women’s studies asserted that sexualized fashion (such as the bikini) furthered male objectification of the female body. However, they fail to acknowledge that revealing fashions also empower women by providing opportunities for sexual expression.

Peggy Moffitt in a topless swimsuit
June 3, 1964

When readers flipped through their issues of Women’s Wear Daily on June 3, 1964, they were reportedly shocked to find images of model Peggy Moffitt in a topless swimsuit. Austrian-American anti-establishment designer Rudi Gernreich had designed this waist-high bikini bottom with suspenders running between Moffitt’s breasts. Avant-garde and controversial, this “monokini” galvanized public opinion. It received an enormous amount of press coverage, which contributed to the acceptance of more “modest” designs such as the bikini. Gernreich believed fashion could promote sexual equality and aimed to free women from the bonds of traditional, patriarchal fashion.

This monokini is dated sometime within the 1970s and was donated Jean McLean. The suit was designed by Elon of California, an elite swimwear designer who is often credited with having a major influence in the California beachwear scene of the 1970s and 80s. While the monokini is celebrated a symbol of sexual expression, it is often viewed as a joke in the lens of the consumer.

Throughout the decade following 1910, most male swimmers donned tank suits in the water. These were substantial garments in dark, solid colours reaching all the way down to the elbow and below the knees. The Machine Age introduced a more athletic look to men's sports and swimwear. By 1912, the booming business of Bentz Knitting Mills added swimwear to their range and the world started to buy male swimsuits like never before. However, social norms focused on modesty and a sign of the times was the 1917, Bathing Suit Regulations published in America, which were highly detailed on the subject of covering up. Male bathing costumes even had to include a skirting outside the trunks for modesty, or a man could wear flannel knee-length pants together with a vest.

This two-piece navy cotton bathing suit was donated from Susan Wiese Green in 1996. While the manufacturer and distributor are unknown, the suit was purchased by the donor at an antique show. The tunic features skirting to cover the crotch area as per Bathing Suit Regulations at the time. Skirt length decreased significantly going into the 1920s. More suit material was also removed from under the arms and around the back- supposedly making it easier to swim but mostly to reveal more muscles. While modesty may have been the goal, men were still given the option to reveal parts of their body.

As opposed to traditional notions of revealing and concealing the body, these two pieces subvert the common ways in which swimwear covers the body. While one piece is considered extremely traditional by today’s standards, it still allowed men opportunity to reveal their muscles. This piece could even be worn today and would not be looked down upon. Compare this to the monokini, a garment that is still considered taboo as it reveals far too much skin. Neither of these pieces would be worn on regular basis now, but if you compare them to their modern counterparts there is a stark double standard.