People used to go to the beach to see other people in an unusual state of near nakedness, especially girls, and stare at them in perfect freedom. It was impossible to do this anywhere else. Magazines showed girls in sleek, revealing swimsuits (guys, too), but that wasn’t the same as real ones moving around, some of them people you actually knew. It used to be the national pastime, after baseball, a summer thrill for everybody. And then, after admiring all the pretty girls on local beaches, you topped it off by watching the Miss America pageant and staring at the prettiest girls in the whole country, parading around in their bathing suits on TV instead of the beach. It was like dessert.
Recently, the pageant has got itself into trouble by implicitly acknowledging this truth about itself. It decided to allow two-piece bathing suits into the competition. At the same time, however, the Miss America pageant stiffened up its terminology so as to avoid calling the event a beauty contest, or the girls gorgeous. The word is out to call the girls talented and confident, and the event a scholarship program. It is, I suspect, this bit of doublespeak that has really set off the alarm, alerting both the hypocrisy-sniffers and the exploitation-of-women’s-bodies people at the same time.
Excluding beauty is a ridiculous development for the Miss America contest. Everybody knows that the pageant is about America’s Sweetheart, the girl whose earnest desire to do good in the world and do well in her work is most purely embodied in her lovely face and perfect figure. It’s part of the wholesome old tradition equating Goodness and Truth with Beauty, particularly the beauty of women. It’s opposed to the wicked old tradition equating the beauty of women with Sin and Perdition. Two-piece bathing suits are so much a part of wholesome American life that the world’s wives and daughters have been wearing them for decades, and navels of all ages are a customary sight.
So customary have they become, in fact, that the pageant’s decision comes at the time when bathing suits are no longer even considered particularly explosive. The June issue of Vogue, for example, showed several shots of girls–among them Uma Thurman–on a sandy beach, writhing in the surf wearing long clinging evening dresses instead of bathing suits. A current issue of French Elle shows a sunny beach with three shots of wet girls in long printed wrap skirts and long-sleeved flowing shirts over their bathing suits. Only one girl is wearing nothing but a bathing suit, and it seemed to be made of a very shaggy bathroom rug cut in two.
S omething has clearly happened to bathing suits. Of course, something started happening to bathing suits as soon as they were invented–that is, they got progressively more revealing. (Swimsuits were invented in the revolutionary 1840s to permit mixed bathing on public beaches. Before that, men and women bathed separately in the nude.) In due course we wound up with the modern swimsuit and the respectable nearly naked nude, ratified for all time by the Miss America pageant and Sports Illustrated. In the beginning, though, a woman’s bathing suit was designed to repel the avid male gaze. With their knee-length bloomers, long stockings, and big, thick belted tunic with elbow-length sleeves, these outfits were all business and no pleasure. The advanced 1890s permitted bathing suits to catch the eye, but only with nautical touches and a less engulfing shape, under which corseting might be applied to sharpen the outline. No skin could appear.
The real change in bathing suits began during World War I. Even before that, a radical exposure in female clothing was underway; skirts rose up and permanently unveiled the shoes, necklines showing the collarbone began to be worn before sundown. Wartime excitement fostered the sense that the Brave Boys deserved a thrill before they marched away, and the truly patriotic bathing suit had to deliver some instant courage to the allied troops.
T he style of that era was set by the Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties of the silver screen: naked arms, shoulders, backs, and armpits topped off skimpy costumes baring knees and an inch or two of thigh. The tight corset had vanished and dieting had yet to be invented, so the jiggly female form showed amply through the bathing suit. And soon such daring beach wear could, should, and indeed had to be worn, not just by actresses with doubtful morals and a professional stake in their physical looks, but by the girl next door. It was all a matter of keeping the home fires burning and preserving the values that mattered.
Ever since, it has been a part of every good girl’s duty, heaven help her, to adorn public beaches and neighborhood swimming pools with eye-striking, heart-stopping, skin-baring bathing suits that provided less and less shelter with every decade. A girl’s respectability was forever sundered from the concealment of her bodily facts–quite the reverse, it became attached to their display. Consequently, keeping the body fit for the task has been built into female basic training for four generations, despite new shifts in the direction of female ambition and the foundation of new codes of female honor. And that training still keeps the Miss America pageant in business, despite the occasional minor agitation that vainly urges it to stop the swimsuit competition.
L ately, however, a shift in fashion has attacked this ancient female habit of body and mind. For one thing, as the Miss America people have probably noticed, vast tracts of once-hidden bare skin can now be everywhere exposed: in the public parks, in the buses and subways, in Grand Central Terminal. Who needs the beach for the ritual summer thrill? Further degrees of exposure became impossible after the string and the thong came in, went out, and returned. And so what’s happened to bathing suits is that folks have lost interest in them, except, perhaps, for the organizers of Miss America.
Even the two-part fluffy carpet I saw in Elle seems just an awkward effort to stir things up. A recent Paris Match tried to help by offering The Most Expensive Bathing Suits available this year, all photographed by Helmut Newton and worn by the unbelievable Eva Herzigova. John Galliano won at $25,000 with a black cotton-satin hourglass corset covered with jeweled sprays and stars and faintly suggesting Jane Russell; followed at a great distance by a $2,000 Yoshibi Ishinuma bikini made entirely of swooping black coq feathers; and a Robert Beaulieu bikini made entirely of pale mink, available at a modest $750. Thierry Mugler’s black satin one-piece took the sado-maso route with stark black bands clutching ribcage and upper thigh, also for $750. Relief from this was offered by Dolce & Gabbana’s two-piece in white lace and Lycra, indistinguishable from the underwear of 1949 and selling for only $125. But such giddy stuff isn’t really beach wear, great though Helmut, Eva, and Galliano all are to contemplate at length.
Extra daring nakedness has gone back to being the domain of professionals, the models who pose for nude photos or who wear runway couture that bares the breasts, buttocks, and navel under transparent spangled veiling meant for ballrooms, not the beach. Meanwhile the neat bikinis and one-piece suits also shown in the June Vogue look like timeless fashion classics, photographed on a perfect body in a manner suggesting the serene elegance of antique sculpture. We could easily follow along in that vein, in our less perfect versions, and so can Miss America, in her sweet one; but what’s truly groundbreaking nowadays is to stroll on the sand or romp in the waves in a full-length dress.