The twentieth century defined a new era for swim wear. The revolution was instigated by two things: a greater interest in recreational sports and the influence of daringly cut French swi msuits. The torturous corset was finally dispensed with and the task of eroticizing the body was taken over by exposing the skin itself since there was nothing to equalize or camouflage the shape of the body. What occurred during the evolution of the ba thing suit during the 20th century was a merciless exposure of the flesh due to the rapidly shrinking suit.
The first Jantzen swimsuits that were introduced at the turn of the century featured the "rib stitch" that consisted of a rubber-like material that retained its shape wet or dry and had the advantage of not soaking up a large amount of water. By 1910, fe male athletes looked forward to a functional suit introduced by Annette Kellerman, an Australian polio victim that had taken up swimming to strengthen her legs. Her practical offering was a tight-fitting black wool one-piece that did away with the skirts and sleeves but kept the trousers cut two inches above the knees. Besides these kind of sports suits, ladies also had the option of dressier styles that showcased sashes, embroidery and vibrant colors of formal feminine dress.
The 1920's brought a collection of suits sporting the war spirit; suits featured short-skirts on a sailor costume. The new suits in general covered less and less of the bather while simultaneously subtracting the skirt.. The suit that symbolized the dec ade was the malliot style, a two-piece that consisted of a vest-shaped top extending to the upper thigh and shorts. As the decade wore on, a new "California style" suit was introduced. This one-piece suit was the conservative response to the more daring cuts of the age since it was essentially the top and skirt of the two-piece malliot but assembled into a single piece of fabric. As the age wore on, corporate influence over the swimsuit and beach culture took foot, instigating standards that would be s et more by market-driven entrepreneurs than governmental bodies. The tubular suits of the decade were influenced by the popular Art Deco mode, featuring deer, gazelles, antelopes, and greyhounds. The ability of the swimsuit to pick up the newest fads an d trends from the fashion world was remarkable. By the end of the 20's "novelty suits" had latched to industry. An example was the wooden bathing suit that came out in 1929. This clunky 2-piece swimsuit provided enough coverage but was a monument to di s-utility.
The 1930's began with a new generation of designers and the emergence of a new look for the body that was functional, sleek, and streamlined. The famous Bauhaus style was void of all dec oration and ornament and left beauty up to form and function itself. This decade was characterized by four types of suits consisting of the malliot, sheath, two-piece, and the "dress-maker." Of these, the dressmaker became the enduring "staple" of the th irties. Its neck and shoulder line was borrowed directly from street wear and kept the skirt effect but shortened to a height above the knee. Remarkably similar to the malliot, variatio ns in the dressmaker made it popular. Variations included little slit aprons in the back and front that concealed the trunks below them, side pleats that gave width to skirts, and out-and-out trunks featuring pleats in the front that gave a skirt effect. The goal behind design advances was to improve the female figure, with the bosom gently "uplifted" and molded by darts -- as in Jantzen's "Ladies Uplifter," an adjustable skirted garment. The 1934 suit hugged the body and was constructed to allow shou lder straps to be lowered for tanning. By mid-decade, "molded-fit" suits were introduced, featuring the "nude look." The "panel suit" was also popular, retaining the memory of the skirted bathing dress in the form of a skirt. The end of the decade was a mesh of rubber suits including the "cloque," consisting of crinkled rubber fabric and a printed crepe-rubber malliot by Kleinart. These rubber suits were available in smooth, crinkly, or embossed surfaces that simulated knitted fabrics, clinging wonder fully to the body.
The 1940's was characterized by the two-piece suit. A popular model was the "Taboo," a diaper trunk tied into large bows at the back of the waist and thighs, leaving a little bit of the hip exposed to the sun. Wartime shortages put a dampen on color, however; designers scoured military technology and provisions for inspiration and materials. "Camouflage colors" were all the rage while linen, cotton, sharkskin, and rayon were used inst ead of wool, silk, and linen. At the end of the war, synthetic fibers were substituted for natural fabrics, making Celanese rayon, satin Lastex, and Nylastic popular choices for swimsuit material. By the end of the decade, designers were aimed at flatte ring female silhouettes. The curvaceous ideal came about in 1947 with Christian Dior's 'New Look." Entire bathing wardrobes came into existence, making it possible to facilitate the matching of activity to dress. Formfitting elasticized suits in either one or two piece models came in colorful hand-printed fabrics. "Dressy" suits were also popular, complete with waist control and a full-length zipper to achieve the fashionable new hourglass shape. Matching suits were also the rage, with manufacturers producing mother-and-daughter suits that were cut modestly at the skirt and were identical in costume. His-and-hers "Sweetheart suits featuring Hawaiian and Polynesian prints were available for couples as well. Cover-ups in the form of beach dresses, shorts, ballerina skirts, and bolero jackets were in the vogue as well due to increased alarm over the effects of sunbathing. However, this was all secondary to the explosive fashion event of the 40's that would alter the world of swim wear fashion forever -- the introduction of the "bikini" in 1946. Originally named "Atome," it was launched into existence simultaneously but separately by Jacques Heim and Louis Beard. Giving something of a "bad name" to French fashion design, the bikini instigated a fashion backlash in the trend of the covered-up look. By this time tastes in the swim wear industry ran differently on the opposite coasts. In Southern California, Hollywood costume designer s such as Cole of California established themselves as the premier seller of theatrical swimsuits that featured glamour in the form of plunging necklines, bare midriffs and gold lame. On the East Coast, however, there developed a preference for the elega nt understated, discreet, lady-like dress complete with dainty ruffles. The new technology in fibers brought flexibility into the swim wear industry itself and made it possible for stylistic diversification and the creation of specialized markets. New fashion statements were made in abundance, the most prominent was Claire McCardell's so-called "American Look." Natural materials were used and draped over the female form, demonstrating examples of modernism in fashion design. McCardell's designs were usually cut similar to her favorite designs and featured her signature "spaghetti" ties, which were thin bias cords that could be wrapped around the neck, shoulders, or waist.
The swimsuit look of the1950's was characterized by the cars of the era -- counterpoised jutting angles against bulbous shapes and curves. The new suits featured pointed breasts and slim waists, helped by the "Merry Widow" corset and other radical develo pments in foundation garments such as rubber elastic fibers fortified with boning, under-wiring, and doubled panels. The "constructed suit" was a milestone in the history of swim wear design featuring the capacity to control and glorify the woman's body. This "neo-Victorian" swimsuit was intended to transform women's bodies and bolster their self-esteem. Colorful patterns were in the norm, with stripes, Glen plaids, dusty batiks, Hawaiian prints, atomic swirls, submarine landscapes, pony prints and zeb ra stripes cropping up everywhere in women's suits. By the mid 50's shorter shorts were in, often zipped on both sides to provide a better fit. Make-up and sunglasses had also become a necessity to complete the look of the beach going American female. < P> The Sixties was the decade that showcased the body, if nothing else. Swim wear design underwent another major revolution with the introduction of Spandex, a synthetic polyurethane fiber that made it ideal for the swim wear look that stressed shape, vibra nt color, and a clingy silhouette. The use of Lycra allowed shaping and molding that resulted in a softer, rounder bosom and a greater style, reflective of the natural body. Brevity was the name of the game with the bikini taking over the American publi c by storm. The "Nude Look" was popular, with the bosom bursting out of shrinking tops. To appease the more modest types, the "convertible" bikini was the "bikini with a conscience," an American innovation that was equipped with drawstrings or bows on t he sides of the trunks and in the middle of the bra. This allowed the wearer to adjust the coverage to match taste and circumstances. The "topless" suit by Rudi Gernreich created much shock in the fashion world, a black knit consisting of nothing but a pair of skinny suspenders that reached the chest. A more mainstream version of this shocking creation were the "Scandals" by Cole of California, black leotard with huge hunks of side, front or midsection sliced away and replaced by a wide-mesh elastic net . Starting a "peek-a-boo" fever that popularized the decade, the suits spawned numerous variations in the fabrications of fishnet. A popular accessory of the decade was the swim cap, featuring bright colors, appliquéd with flowers, ribbons, and contras ting bands of fabric.
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© Copyright by Roselyn Hsueh - All Rights Reserved 1997
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© Copyright by Roselyn Hsueh - All Rights Reserved 1997