by Marisol Bertero MONACO. With summer in eye-shot, swimsuits act like a mirror in terms of what’s happening around us and what’s changing in cultures at large, like for instance the necessity to create a specific anti-street/beach harassment law… This very short story about the bathing styles show that it is very closely linked to social change and, more specifically, to the changing idea of what a woman’s role in society was during that era. At the end of the nineteenth century, modesty was a big deal back then. A single woman wasn’t even allowed to speak to a man unless another married woman was present in the room as a chaperon! Compared to our barely clad, spaghetti-strapped swimsuit styles, the bathing costumes of the 18th and 19th century seem laughably prudish. But those days, people worried that glimpsing more than a sliver of a woman’s ankle might give onlookers the vapors.
This was such a concern, in Georgian and Victorian times (roughly 1714 to 1901), that entire fleets of “bathing machines” were designed to prevent anyone from seeing a woman in her swimsuit before she slipped into the waves, keeping women hidden from prying male eyes. As the Victorian era end with its stuffy ideals and prudishness, swimsuit styles stay stubbornly frock-like for a decade later. But in the meantime the suffrage movement was in full swing. During the First World War, more and more women began working outside the home, and began to believe that they could do just as much as their male counterparts. For example, we began to see an emergence of female athletes around this time, although they weren’t able to swim as well with the men when weighed down by wool pleated skirts. In the 1930s, a third of women worked outside the home, attended universities, and found employment opportunities traditionally reserved for men. In the ’40s, at the beginning of World War II, women in Europe had to rise up to the role of caretakers and heads of the family while millions of men went off to fight. They worked to provide for their family, took up manual labor jobs and desk seats usually earmarked for husbands, and learned to depend on themselves to make ends meet. These roles strengthen and make women more audacious and more comfortable even in dress.
From the Fifties and sixties swimsuit designers begins to up the ante in terms of what was acceptable to show in public. With icons like Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot, sexuality became less shocking and more pop culture. Swimsuits were still often high-waisted and sometimes resembled a skirt of sorts, while the top was usually a halter/bra hybrid that kept ladies modest but still sizzling on the beach. While the second wave of feminism orders women to end with the patriarchy and to wear whatever they want, when they want, the hippie era advises free love and birth control. A lot of things were happening in the ’60s that helped edge the bikini into its iconic style. It was itsy, bitsy, teeny, and weeny, and it told the public “the more skin, the better.” In the seventies’ swimwear designers and cinema stars like Ursula Andress nourish the swimsuit market (which today is valued at $ 20 billion). The eighties were those of the sculpted and aggressive “body” and women’s independence only continued to grow in the ’90s. As the women’s role in the world is evolving, the millenials’ fashion reflects what is happening around us and what is changing in cultures in general. In short, what is happening today is that in the free world women have acquired self-confidence in their charisma and in their own sexuality. But even today fashion goes up and down according to how women are viewed in the social climate they live in. For instance, the Muslim culture doesn’t exclude colored “Burkini” and “Facekini” on the beach, as well as the trendiest one piece in private pools, quickly coupled with the abaya, in case any man come in view.