Swimming and bathing were common activities in the ancient world, and the Romans built public baths in even the most remote parts of their empire. After declining during the Middle Ages, bathing was revived in the seventeenth century, when it became popular as a medicinal treatment. At spas such as Bath and Baden, where bathers sought out the warm mineral waters for their therapeutic effects, linen bathing garments—knee-length drawers and waistcoats for men, and long-sleeved linen smocks or chemises for women—were in use by the late seventeenth century. These garments were worn for modesty rather than appearance, and could be hired from the baths by those who did not wish to purchase their own.
In the eighteenth century, medical authorities began to prescribe salt-water bathing, and seaside towns, along with large floating baths in most major cities, began to cater to large numbers of health-conscious visitors. Bathing usually consisted of a quick dip, often in the early morning, and was considered more a duty than a pleasure. Until the mid-nineteenth century, male and female bathers were almost always segregated from each other, either through the provision of separate bathhouses or stretches of beach, or by using the same area at different assigned times. Modesty was also preserved by the use of "bathing machines"—small buildings mounted on wheels, in which the bather would change from street clothes into a bathing costume while a horse and driver pulled the machine into the sea. The steps by which the bather would descend into the water were often covered with an awning to ensure that he or she would not be seen until mostly underwater. Thus protected from the eyes of the opposite sex, men generally bathed nude, or in simple trunks with a drawstring waist; women's bathing gowns were cut much like the chemise (undergarment) of the period, but were often made of stiffer material so as not to cling to the figure, and sometimes incorporated weights in the hem to keep the gown from floating. The only purpose of bathing garments at this time was to keep the bather warm and sufficiently covered up, and little thought was given to their appearance.
In the early nineteenth century, bathing began to be considered a recreational as well as beneficial activity, and seaside holidays grew in popularity. Each locality had its own standards for appropriate attire, and the costumes worn varied widely from place to place. In general, however, as women began to be more active in the water, rather than simply immersing themselves, their bathing dresses became slightly shorter, and were gathered or fitted around the waist. At the same time, ankle-length drawers or pantaloons, similar to the drawers worn as underwear by ladies in the 1840s, began to be worn underneath.
From the mid-century on, mixed bathing became more acceptable, and as stationary beach huts began to replace bathing machines, bathing costumes were more visible, and attention began to be paid to making them
Beautiful aquatic women have been important fantasy figures since ancient times, when sirens, mermaids, and water nymphs led heroes of mythology astray. The modern-day bathing beauty, however, did not appear until the late nineteenth century, when bathing dresses were first seen in public. As these were the most revealing costumes allowed for women at the time, images of pretty bathing girls, both in wholesome advertisements and on naughty postcards, soon proliferated. Around 1914, the comedies of silent film producer Mack Sennett began to feature a bevy of young women in exaggerated and revealing bathing dress, whom he called his Bathing Beauties. Their popularity inspired beach resorts such as Venice Beach, California, and Galveston, Texas, to stage annual bathing girl parades and beauty contests; the Miss America pageant started as one such bathing girl contest, held in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1920 to encourage late-season tourism. Over the years this and other beauty pageants, with their parades of women in bathing suits and high heels featured in newsreels and television broadcasts, have been instrumental in associating swimwear with feminine beauty in the popular imagination. (This connection was not lost on Catalina Swimwear, a major pageant sponsor, which started the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants after the 1951 Miss America refused to pose in a swimsuit during her reign.)
The Hollywood bathing beauty came of age in the 1930s, when photographs of stars and starlets posing in fashionable swimwear began appearing in large num bers. These images had an impact on fashions, as women sought to emulate the look of their favorite stars, and achieved iconic status during World War II, when pinups of Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth came to symbolize "what we're fighting for" to many American servicemen. Another, more active kind of bathing beauty was showcased in the aquatic ballets of Billy Rose's Aquacades at the 1939-1940 World's Fair, in the water-skiing spectaculars at Cypress Gardens in Florida, and, most memorably, in the lavish MGM films featuring Esther Williams, the first of which was the 1944 Bathing Beauty. Miss Williams, a 1939 national swimming champion, was a top box-office draw through the mid-1950s, and her film costumes, together with her ability to look glamorous before, during, and after swimming, did much to inspire the desired poolside look of the era.
Since its debut in 1964, Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue has probably been the most relevant modern incarnation of the bathing beauty tradition, and has come to symbolize its contradictions. Widely credited with popularizing the active, healthy California look in the 1960s, and thus encouraging women to be more athletic, the swimsuit issue has also been criticized for displaying women as sex objects for the enjoyment of a predominantly male audience. Seen as empowering, exploitative, or both, the bathing beauties seen in Sports Illustrated continue to influence swimwear fashion, and to act as a kind of barometer for changing cultural attitudes and standards of beauty.
more attractive. Bathing styles began to be covered by popular magazines, which both standardized bathing costumes and brought them into the realm of fashion, with new styles introduced each season. Women's costumes began to follow the silhouette of street fashions more closely in this period, but also developed their own fashion vocabulary; they were usually made of wool flannel or serge, in dark colors (which were less revealing of the figure when wet), and enlivened by jaunty details such as sailor collars and braid trim in contrasting colors. Bathing costumes also now required many fashionable accessories. Hats, rubberized and oilcloth caps, and a variety of turban-like head-wraps kept hair neat and protected from salt water. Full-length dark stockings kept the legs modestly covered, and flat-soled bathing shoes, often with ribbon ties crossing up the leg, protected the feet and set off the ankles. As wool bathing dresses became quite heavy when wet, and clung to the figure in a way that was considered unattractive and immodest, bathing capes and mantles were also considered necessary for the walk from the water to the changing room.
Later in the century, bathing dresses (the term "bathing suit" also came into use at this time) became more practical, with both skirt and pantaloons gradually shortened, necklines lowered, and sleeves shortened or even eliminated. In the United States, where it took longer for these styles to catch on, the one-piece (or "princess-style") costume became a popular alternative in the 1890s; this consisted of an attached blouse and knee-length drawers, with a separate knee-length or shorter skirt that could be removed for swimming. Even so, most bathing costumes were essentially variations of street fashions, intended largely for promenading by the sea and wading or frolicking in the surf; many required the wearing of a corset underneath, and were made of materials that would be ruined if they ever got wet. In the early
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twentieth century, the term "bathing dress" came to mean this kind of fashionable, skirted costume, as opposed to the utilitarian "swimming suit." Chemise-style silk bathing dresses with bloomers or tights continued to be worn by some women into the 1920s, but by the 1930s they were obsolete, and the terms "bathing suit" and "swimsuit" had become interchangeable.
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