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Humans are one of the few species that choose to voluntarily displace their bodies in water for pleasure, physical activity, research, and travel. Humans are a bipedal species with lungs, and thus not specifically adapted for aquatic life. Despite this, we have found technological and fashionable ways to submerge, float, and move ourselves through the water. From bloomers and tunics of the early 20th century to the high-waisted two-piece worn by Billiejean Heneghan at the end of WWII and a contemporary gender-neutral swimsuit by Tomboy X. The swimsuits and fins in this case reveal changes in style and materials across time.

Physical Display
Physical Display

Tunic and Bloomers of Bathing Suit, c. 1920.
Tunic and Bloomers of Bathing Suit, c. 1920.

Tunic and Bloomers of Bathing Suit

Date: c. 1920


Source: Brown, Elizabeth Schmeck

CF+TC # 2007.66.002a,b

Description: This two-piece, black sateen women’s bathing suit, estimated to have been made sometime between 1915 and 1920, consists of a tunic paired with knee-length bloomers. The tunic is accented with five rows of off-white, braided trim which appear around the neckline, the lower front in diagonal rows where pockets might be placed, as well as around the hem. The bloomers are more simplistic in appearance, however, pearl buttons, one at the waistband closure and three on the side seam near each knee, add to their decorative flare. While the excess fabric and the heaviness of the material made swimming in these styles of suits difficult, these are still more form-fitted and slightly more functional than the women swimming skirts worn a generation earlier. The inclusion of two slits at either side of the tunic in addition to the bloomer’s crotch area containing a separate gusset piece was likely intended to add to the swimmer’s ease of movement.

 TomboyX Unisuit
TomboyX Unisuit

TomboyX Unisuit

Date: 2020

Designer: TomboyX

CF+TC new acquisition

Description: This rainbow Pride unisuit is designed by TomboyX, a size-inclusive underwear brand designed for wearers of all gender identities. The brand is unprecedented in that its products do not conform to a menswear/womenswear gender binary. They prioritize comfort, ethical production, inclusivity, and self-expression, and are one of the first established trans-inclusive underwear brands. TomboyX uses sustainable materials and earth-conscious production facilities, and all garments are produced in women-owned production facilities.

Yellow swim trunks, 1950-1970.
Yellow swim trunks, 1950-1970.

Yellow swim trunks

Date: 1950-1970

Donor: Susan Wiese Greene

CF+TC# 1996.08.002

Description: Created from yellow nylon, these boys swim trunks are estimated to have been manufactured sometime between the 1950s and 1970s by the brand “Swim Wear.” It is a brief-style suit, a common swimwear silhouette for both boys and men, which is characterized by a snug fit and having the lower portion of the leg openings rise above the length of the crotch. Other than its zippered pocket, there is one other prominent design feature: a large fish-eating bird which is positioned over the majority of the suit’s front left side. It remains unclear whether this element was painted by the manufacturer or if it was added as customization by the owners of the suit after its purchase.

Two Piece Bathing Suit (Bikini), c1945.
Two Piece Bathing Suit (Bikini), c1945.

Two Piece Bathing Suit (Bikini)

Date: 1945

Medium: White Canvas

Donor: Patricia Orr

CF+TC # 2015.24.001ab

Description: The first two-piece swimming suit was designed by a French designer, Louis Réard, in 1946. European women first began wearing two-piece bathing suits that consisted of a halter top and shorts in the 1930s, but only a sliver of the midriff was revealed and the navel was vigilantly covered. In the United States, the modest two-piece made its appearance during World War II, when wartime rationing of fabric saw the removal of superfluous material.

This particular two-piece was worn by Billiejean Heneghan in August 1945. According to her daughter and donor of this piece, Patricia Ann Orr ‘70, Heneghan was born in Santa Paula, CA, then traveled east with her mother and settled in Olean, NY before her fifth birthday. She graduated from Olean High School in 1941, just prior to the US entrance to WWII. With all attention turned to the war effort, she returned to CA (LA this time), lived with an aunt, and was employed in a B52 airplane factory working on the central PBX telephone exchange. Her job at the switchboard meant that she was the first person at the factory to hear momentous world news such as the death of FDR, VE Day, and VJ Day, and then pass it on to the workers. The photo of Billijean in the white bathing suit was taken shortly before she returned to Olean, following the end of the war in August 1945

Churchill Swim Fin

Date: circa 1940

CF+TC new acquisition

Description: Owen Churchill designed and patented the Churchill Swimfins after seeing Tahitian boys using similar devices that created aquatic thrust in 1940. These new fins were an improved version of earlier designs made by Louis De Corlieu in 1935. With diving’s low popularity in America, Churchill only sold under a thousand pairs at the end of the first year. Right after bodyboarding was introduced in 1971, the excellent performance and popularity of Churchill, Swimfins made it one of the best-selling Swimfins in the world. For many decades the design did not change but over time the colors evolved to include an iconic blue & yellow.

Churchill Swim Fin - Top View
Churchill Swim Fin - Top View
Churchill Swim Fin - Detail
Churchill Swim Fin - Detail

Swimming Backdrop

The leftmost image is by Winston O. Link titled “Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole, Luray, Virginia” and was taken around 1956 and printed years later in 1998. It is also included in another part of the exhibition, “Visualizing Transit,” at the Johnson Museum of Art and online. Link was famous for photographing the “death” of the steam locomotive and well-lit scenes using a film camera at night.

Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole, Luray, Virginia

Artist: O. Winston Link (American, 1914-2001)

Date: 1956 (negative); 1998 (print)

Classifications: Photographs

Medium: Gelatin silver print


Image: 19 3/8 × 15 1/2 in. (49.2 × 39.4 cm)

Sheet: 19 5/8 × 16 in. (49.8 × 40.6 cm)

Mat: 28 × 22 in. (71.1 × 55.9 cm)

Credit Line: Acquired through the generosity of Jennifer, Gale, and Ira Drukier

Collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University

Acquired through the generosity of Jennifer, Gale, and Ira Drukier; 99.047.002

Image courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum and Winston Conway Link

Description: Winston Link (1914 - 2001) was an acclaimed American artist known for black and white photography, in particular his documentation of the decline of steam locomotives as they were being replaced by diesel-run trains and the meteoric rise in popularity of the automobile. Link’s habit of shooting photographs at night led him to innovate new methods and equipment for lighting these scenes. The layered composition seen in this photograph explores both the possibility and complexity of transit during this time. The image features swimmers at the bottom of the frame, beneath an empty roadway for automobiles, and at the top, a steam locomotive against a night sky, seeming at once both noble, and yet somehow out of place.

Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole, Luray Virginia, 1956.
Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole, Luray Virginia, 1956.

Scuba Diving, 2015.
Scuba Diving, 2015.

Scuba Diving

Date: 2015


Image Courtesy of Dennise Pohls Pérez (Photographer)

& Amanda Bosworth (Scuba Diver)

Description: Dr. Amanda L.Bosworth (Shirnina) got her Ph.D. in Maritime History from Cornell University. She got her open water diver and dry suit diver certification through Pan Aqua Diving in New York City. She did take Small Boat Sailing and Large Boat Sailing at Cornell while earning her Ph.D. All she is wearing aside from scuba gear is a purple bikini. Since the BCD (vest) strap falls exactly where the bikini is, it almost looks like she is wearing nothing on top in some of the photos...but she is!