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A Look Back at Vintage Swimwear

By Lovia Gyarkye

The water ballerinas, Aug. 6, 1951.
 
Sam Falk
The water ballerinas, Aug. 6, 1951.

The swimsuit reflects the underbelly of society: It privileges superficiality, has been used to police cultures and values increasingly irrelevant norms of gender and sexuality.

Yet, it survives and lives unstably in the public imagination, vacillating between our collective affection and disdain. Last June, Miss America ended its nearly 100-year-old swimsuit competition. “We are moving it forward and evolving it in this cultural revolution,” Gretchen Carlson, the organisation’s chairwoman, saidat the time.

In April, Halima Aden made history as the first Muslim model to wear a hijab and burkini in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

Suzanne DeChilloFrom left, Vanessa Caine, 18, Nicole Poteat, 17, and Dettaree Carney, 16, at the Saxon Woods Swimming Pool in 1987. Ms. Poteat, a recent graduate of the New Rochelle Ursuline School, said of her bathing suit: “If the sisters who teach at the school saw it they’d probably go crazy.”
From left, Vanessa Caine, 18, Nicole Poteat, 17, and Dettaree Carney, 16, at the Saxon Woods Swimming Pool in 1987. Ms. Poteat, a recent graduate of the New Rochelle Ursuline School, said of her bathing suit: “If the sisters who teach at the school saw it they’d probably go crazy.”

It’s hard to say when the garment came to be, but attitudes have certainly changed over time. Early rules about swimwear were governed almost exclusively by modesty; women wore long skirts and men were required to wear T-shirts; and progress was glacial.

In 1866 (one of the earliest mentions in this paper), the Times referred to swimsuits, or at least a variant, as “dresses for sea-bathing” and recommended that women wear “a tunic and knickerbockers of a stout brown holland.” The best material for this look was still up for debate.

It wasn’t until 1925 — almost two decades after Annette Kellermann, an Australian swimmer who famously wore a form-fitting one-piece bathing suit — that the mayor of Atlantic City Beach ruled that women could wear “one-piece suits with skirts and bare legs.”

But even with this new relaxed policy, the mayor asked women not to “go beyond reason in their beach attire,” and, according to a New York Times article about the rule, there would be men and women “beach censors” to enforce the dress code.

The New York TimesJosephine McKim, the record-setting American swimmer.
Josephine McKim, the record-setting American swimmer.
The New York TimesBeachgoers trying to get a summer bronzed look in the 1960s.
Beachgoers trying to get a summer bronzed look in the 1960s.

With these positions, it’s difficult to imagine that an even more scandalous item — the bikini — came on the scene in 1946. Louis Réard, a French automobile engineer, designed the two-piece, naming it after the nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, according to his wife, Michelle.

The design shocked, and Mr. Réard could find only one person to model the suit, Micheline Bernardini, a 19-year-old nude dancer. The bikini was not an instant hit, particularly in the United States; it chafed against the moral barometer of the day, and celebrity endorsements from the likes of Brigitte Bardot confirmed its immodesty.

The Times has dutifully, if not always intentionally, tracked the evolution of swimwear. In the archives are personal essaysdescribing the dreadful ordeal of swimsuit shopping; the advertisements of carefree women announcing significant sales; and unexpected articles with quotations from young women, one saying that if her teachers at her Catholic school in New Rochelle saw the cut of her swimsuit “they’d probably go crazy.”

The articles in the archives reflect the swimsuit’s slippery definition and suggest that perhaps this garment’s survival is less about its meaning and more about its role as a vehicle for enjoying life’s low-key pleasures: water and the sun.

Barton SilvermanOn a beach in East Amagansett, on Long Island, on Aug. 4, 1969.
On a beach in East Amagansett, on Long Island, on Aug. 4, 1969.
Michael EvansA group of young women on Jacob Riis Beach on Aug. 24, 1969.
A group of young women on Jacob Riis Beach on Aug. 24, 1969.
Fred ConradAnne Verdeman, left, and Jean Auerbach at the Brighton Beach Bath Racquet Club on July 19, 1984.
Anne Verdeman, left, and Jean Auerbach at the Brighton Beach Bath Racquet Club on July 19, 1984.
The New York TimesDivers at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, headed by Georgia Coleman, (top, center) soar through the air as they officially open the new Olympic Swimming Stadium at Los Angeles on April 7, 1932.
Divers at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, headed by Georgia Coleman, (top, center) soar through the air as they officially open the new Olympic Swimming Stadium at Los Angeles on April 7, 1932.
Suzanne DeChilloA diver at the Saxon Woods Swimming Pool in White Plains, June 14, 1987.
A diver at the Saxon Woods Swimming Pool in White Plains, June 14, 1987.
Eddie HausnerTwo beachgoers at Jacob Riis Park.
Two beachgoers at Jacob Riis Park.
The New York TimesGeorgia Coleman, the American diver who won four Olympic medals, practicing the hoop dive in a pool at Los Angeles in 1931.
Georgia Coleman, the American diver who won four Olympic medals, practicing the hoop dive in a pool at Los Angeles in 1931.
Sam FalkThe Aquabelles demonstrate a human pinwheel formation at the Aquashow in Flushing Meadow Park on July 8, 1953. The aquatic show ran for 12 seasons and that year entertained half a million people.
The Aquabelles demonstrate a human pinwheel formation at the Aquashow in Flushing Meadow Park on July 8, 1953. The aquatic show ran for 12 seasons and that year entertained half a million people.