I probably don’t have to explain that bathing suits — or rather, exposed skin — have caused their fair share of controversy (and dressing room angst) in the last century. Be it bikini or bloomers, each innovation in bathing costumes caused a ruckus around its perceived “inappropriateness.” While men hit the surf in board shorts, itty bitty briefs, or fitted wool suits (similar to today’s wrestling uniform) that left little to the imagination, women were told to cover their bodies in shapeless dress. The result was both impractical and uncomfortable.
Interestingly enough, the concept of a bathing suit didn’t even exist pre-1900. Long before the one-piece became the standard in modesty, a day at the beach for a respectable woman necessitated a few itchy layers of the prescribed wool stockings, bloomers, and sailor dress that composed a “summer wardrobe.” With all of that heavy drag, the amount of actual swimming accomplished is debatable — until Annette Kellerman, a Vaudeville performer, competitive swimmer (affectionately known as “the Australian mermaid”), and the first woman to attempt the English Channel, sewed stockings on a men’s racing suit and hit the beach in 1908. She was arrested.
“In court, Kellerman explained she was not a provocateur but a pragmatist. She simply wanted to swim freely, and was that so wrong? ‘I may as well be swimming in chains,’ she complained. Before long, she had created her own line of women’s swimwear, when there really was no such thing, and long before celebrities regularly leveraged their fame to sell clothes. The ‘Annette Kellerman’ was the first modern swimsuit for women. And, in many ways, its namesake was one of the first modern women.
“Well into the 1970s, Annette Kellerman swam every day. ‘There is nothing more democratic than swimming,’ she wrote. ‘Bathing is a society event but swimming out beyond the surf line is just plain social. Every one is happy and young and funny. There is no time and no place where one may so companionably play the fool and not be called one.’”
Bathing suit design has come a long way since that fateful day in 1908. Monokinis, thongs, boy bottoms or maillot, women now have a choice to wear whatever they deem appropriate without fear of reprobation. For more on the Annette Kellerman and the origin of the bathing suit, see Cristina’s piece on The Hairpin.
What does your bathing suit say about you? Do you embrace the freedom to bare it all?