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Visit these other humorous sites by Marjorie Dorfman:

Eat, Drink and
Really Be Merry

Home Is Where
the Dirt Is

Middle Age
and Other Mistakes

Don't Tech Me In

What's New, Emu?

Laughing Matters Ink

I Was Absent

© 2008
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at the beachThe Bathing Suit: From Wherever Did It Come?
by Marjorie Dorfman

Beaches have drawn humans to their salty emerald waters since the beginning of time. Swimwear, however, is another story, not quite as alluring or salty. In ancient times, bathing was a nude affair. In some settings, coverings were utilized. Evidence gleaned from murals at Pompeii and Crete, for example, depict women wearing two-piece suits covering their breast and hips in a manner strikingly similar to the modern bikini. Somehow however, the notion of special water apparel was tossed away with the apparel. In other bare words, for millenniums untold, people bathed tutto nudo and a buffo, to boot. What changed and why? Read the naked truth here. Now.

The beach has been a source of amusement and respite from the oppressive heat of summer for centuries. In the 1700s, women were known to wear "bathing gowns" in the water. These long dresses made of fabric would not become transparent when wet and weights were sewn into the hems so that they would not rise in water (How could anything, including the swimmer, one might ask.) Men wore a rather form-fitting, wool (ugh!) garment with long sleeves and legs similar to long underwear. This look did not change for more than a century.

bathing gownLong before the itsy, bitsy, teeny-weeny bikini, suntan lotion and the Beach Boys, people ventured under the sun for all the joys to be found there. As railroads closed the gap between cities and waterfront, and the age of industrialization created more leisure time, ocean-side resorts became more and more popular during the warmer months of the year. Along with this new pastime, came the need for stylish garments for those privileged ladies of fashion.

In the 19th century, women began to wear two-piece suits, which were composed of a gown that extended from shoulder to knees plus a set of trousers with leggings going down to the ankles. (One can only wonder why mufflers and gloves weren’t part of the ensemble.) The more popular beach resorts during the Victorian era were equipped with bathing machines (cabanas that were horse-drawn out into the water), which provided privacy and avoided exposure of people changing into swimsuits especially to people of the opposite sex. (Heaven forbid!)

a dip in the seaThe early twentieth century brought about some changes in women’s swimwear, but they came externally from the "land down under." In 1907, Australian swimmer and "underwater ballerina," Annette Kellerman, visited the United States. Her act involved synchronized swimming and diving into glass tanks. Due to the fact that her swimsuit had the bare audacity to reveal arms, legs and her neck, she was arrested for indecent exposure. (Her neck, legs and arms really should have known better!) As a result, she altered her suit so that it had longer arms and legs and a collar as well, but retained the close fit that revealed her shape underneath. She later starred in a few movies, even one about her life.

Soon after, bathing apparel began to expose arms and then legs, up to mid-thigh. Collars receded with the tide from around the neck down to around the top of the bosom. New fabrics allowed for varieties of comfortable and practical swimwear, some of it more revealing than ever before. Young women of the 1920s were liberated forever from long, stifling skirts and dipped into figure-hugging, wool jersey sleeveless tank suits that were as inviting as the cool ocean waters. These early suits were ideal for the athletic (not too bosomy) figure, and they greatly resembled the male swimming costumes of an earlier era.

mens bathing attireAlthough these swimsuits marked a drastic disparity from the restricted bathing apparel of the past, they were not flattering to the female form, stopping at mid thigh. Just in case voyeurs lurked beneath the waters, the ensemble included a pair of built-in modesty shorts. There was also no thought given to flattering colors or style,s as these suits were often designed with dramatic abstract patterns or stripes, which drew attention to body "trouble spots" by taking the eye directly to them. (It was like asking someone not to look up to see a nasty crack in the ceiling, which of course immediately draws all eyes upward.)

The swimsuit of the 1920s often had a cutout section in the midriff panel but this disappeared as it evolved into a two-piece garment. The bathing cap of the 1920s was not only ideally suited to the popular "bobbed’ hair cuts, but was also very similar to the cloche hats in vogue at the time. As the 1920s disappeared, feminine, cotton printed bathing suits with little skirts to hide the thighs gradually replaced older unflattering versions. The swimsuits of the 1930s bore some semblance to many of the suits today. Hollywood stars glamorized the latest fashions. Dorothy Lamour and her sarong managed to remain snug around her ample bosom as she cavorted across the globe with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Esther Williams a bit later brought attention to attractive bathing caps and figure-hugging beach costumes as well as those old musical films featuring synchronized aqua swimming.

flapper bathing suitCorsets were going out of style and manufacturers sought a way to increase production and revenue sometime during the 1940s. The new, more revealing swimsuits really needed help in a design that would hide the flaws in a woman’s shape. They succeeded by introducing stretch tummy control panels, which held in the stomach. Bra cups and boning supported the bust. Now bathing suits could be worn either strapless or with small straps that buttoned onto the inside.

humor pop culture

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Don't miss this excellent book:

From Head to Toe:
Bound Feet, Bathing Suits, and Other Bizarre and Beautiful Things

by Janice Weaver, Francis Blake

From Head To Toe

This cross-cultural exploration of fashion is engaging and enthralling. It is a fascinating account of the place of clothes and assorted adornments down through the ages. The animated writing style and interesting contents make this book ripe for recreational reading as well as a good source for reports. By placing fashion within its broader cultural context, the author shows readers that people all over the world and through all time have used fashion to describe who they are.

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