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In the Swim
William Oscar Johnson
February 07, 1989
Through the centuries, swimsuits have gone from the ridiculous to the sublime, with a few strange stops in between
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February 07, 1989

In The Swim

Through the centuries, swimsuits have gone from the ridiculous to the sublime, with a few strange stops in between

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In the beginning there was water, and over the next couple of billion years, God proceeded to create fish, fowl, man, woman, the beach, the flannel bathing gown, the one-piece woolen swimsuit, the two-piece Lastex suit, the shoestring bikini, the see-through mesh suit and Cheryl Tiegs. There you have it, a skin-deep history of the evolution of mankind and marine life on earth. For those of you interested only in the Big Picture—in grand schemes and divine designs—this is all you need to know, and you should turn directly to page 232, where the big pictures in this issue begin. For you readers with a penchant for little-known facts, read on to learn how the swimsuit evolved from something that had all the grace and charm of a collapsed pup tent into the world's most provocative form of female apparel.


In the 17th century bathing—as swimming was known then—was generally a passive activity. Bathers sought the health-giving qualities of water rather than vigorous exercise. Sometimes one immersed oneself in the cold sea and sometimes in the warm, curative springs of spas. But whatever the temperature of the water, rarely was much skin displayed. Following a visit to Bath, the British spa, in 1687, a traveler wrote: "The ladyes goes into the bath with garments made of a fine yellow canvas, with great sleeves like a parson's gown, the water fills it up so that its borne off that your shape is not seen.... The Gentlemen have drawers and wastcoates of the same sort of canvas."

A century or so later the bathing machine, a sort of cabana on wheels, was invented. It allowed the psychotically modest to spend a day at the beach in complete privacy. The bathing machine was later improved with the addition of a "modesty hood," an awning that extended into the water. The hood was the brainstorm of Benjamin Beale, a Quaker from England who had been troubled by the sight of women emerging from the sea in soaking-wet flannel dresses. Horses would haul a bathing machine far enough into the ocean so that no one could see the woman inside as she changed from her thick layers of land clothing into her almost-as-thick layers of water clothing.


Going naked into the water was not unheard of among respectable women of the 17th century. An anonymous poem called The Swimming Lady spoke of "a virgin lady bright and gay" who appeared on a river bank one day and...

With glittering glance,
her jealous eyes
Did slyly look about
To see if any lurking spies
Were hid to find her out:
And being well resolved that none
Could view her nakedness,
She puts her robes off, one by one,
And doth herself undress.

Any woman worth her wiles knew that if properly used, even a 19th-century head-to-toe swimming dress could be more provocative than nudity. In 1856, The Observer of London described a day of bathing at the English coastal resort of Ramsgate: "The water is black with bathers...the females do not venture beyond the serf [sic], and lay themselves on their backs, waiting for the coming waves, with their bathing dresses in a most d�gag�e [sic] style. The waves come, and in the majority of instances, not only cover the fair bathers, but literally carry their dresses up to their neck, so that, as far as decency is concerned, they might as well be without any dresses at all...and all this takes place in the presence of thousands of spectators... the gentlemen come to look at the ladies bathing...."


No person in this century did more to make the female anatomy a visible—as well as a respectable—element of swimsuit fashion than Annette Kellerman, the swimmer who starred for years in vaudeville as The Diving Venus and whom a goggle-eyed Harvard professor once pronounced "the most beautifully formed woman of modern times." Kellerman was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1888. When she was a child her legs were weak and bowed, and she needed braces to walk. To increase her strength, Annette began to swim at an early age. Soon she could walk, run and even dance some ballet. By the time she was 10, she had grown into a powerful young girl who won swimming races against many of Australia's best competitors.

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