A new exhibition of 20th Century beachwear reveals how social, sexual and cultural attitudes to bodies have evolved – through swimwear. Libby Banks finds out more.

When it comes to fashion that carries emotional baggage, it’s hard to beat our complex and often fraught relationship with swimwear – particularly as the summer holidays approach. Public anger flared at Protein World’s recent controversial adverts that featured a bikini-wearing model and asked “Are you beach body ready?” More than 50,000 people signed an online petition to remove the posters from London Underground stations. The protest organised in response to the ads underscored swimwear’s uncomfortable associations with body image. It’s hardly surprising: more than any other item of clothing worn in public, swimwear strips away social markers and places physical appearance front-and-centre.

But a new exhibition at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum shows that what we wear to the beach isn’t just a convenient marketing tool for promoting a physical ideal – over the last century beachwear has played a fundamental role in liberating us culturally, socially and sexually. The Riviera Style exhibition brings together a diverse range of clothing worn in and by the sea from 1900 to the present day – and proves that when you hit the beach this summer you’re not just showing some skin, you’re celebrating decades of technological and social breakthroughs.

“Beachwear isn’t just about fashion trends, it is also barometer about attitudes to modesty and display throughout the 20th Century, both from a male and female perspective”, says exhibition curator Dr Christine Boydell. “What’s interesting about swimwear is that it’s basically become underwear, and it’s a form of underwear on display and wouldn’t have been acceptable to wear anywhere else.”

The rise of the vacation, first within the UK and then abroad thanks to affordable package holidays, provided the perfect opportunity to cut loose from our inhibitions, adds Dr Boydell. “We wanted to focus on the holiday environment because it is a platform for experimentation; people let their hair down and got up to things that they wouldn’t have normally done – there is a sense of release because you are away from your hometown, and that means you can take risks in what you wear.”

Featuring more than 200 swimwear and beachwear ensembles, Riviera Style shows how the evolution of beachwear also charts changes to our leisure pursuits and physical freedom. From impossibly heavy woolen Edwardian bathing dresses and the Nigella-endorsed “burkini” to plunging Lycra, mid-Century resortwear and banned Olympic racing suits, the exhibition explores over 100 years of bathing from the English seaside to the Côte d'Azur. It also offers a fascinating insight into changing interpretations of decency. For example, men’s bare chests were banned from beaches in the UK until the mid-1930s, and belly buttons were considered too “anatomical” to be revealed in public by men or women until the late 1950s.

Fabric of society

The rate at which baring the body became acceptable during the first decades of the last century is impressive. A woman’s bright red woollen swimming suit dated to 1900 was worn in the sea with long skirts, black stockings, lace-up boots and a mop cap. Fast forward 50 years and lingerie-inspired bikinis were all the rage. “It was common for Edwardian men and women to swim in clothes that resembled everyday garments, right down to the shoes,” explains collector Joan Gurney, who loaned the ensemble to the exhibition. ”But an outfit like this was only worn in the water – if you’d hung around the beach it would have been considered utterly indecent.”

The need to release women from swimming in hazardously heavy garments and free up their right to physical exercise was a cause fought by Australian synchronised swimmer Annette Kellerman. In 1907 she wore a form-fitting one-piece suit with a high neck and knee-length shorts on a Massachusetts beach and was promptly arrested for indecent exposure. Kellerman famously responded, “I can’t swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothesline.”

“In a way the main story is about fabric – from these innovations come social change”, says Dr Boydell. The exhibition shows how fabric development had a huge impact on releasing the body, from early efforts to produce fabric that didn’t sag and become heavy when wet, to more recent technical developments designed to increase speed and improve fit.

The impact of the glamorous beach culture that first emerged on the French Riviera in the 1920s ­­­– and was promptly recreated everywhere from Scarborough to Southend ­­– is also explored. The exhibition shows how fashion trends first spotted on the Rivera almost a century ago – including Breton stripes, sunglasses, sundresses and halter-tops – still influence our holiday wardrobes today.

‘Power and body confidence’

Riviera beach culture, which made it fashionable to hang out on the beach rather than simply have a quick health-restoring dip in the sea, also played a role in freeing up women’s wardrobes. The beach pyjama provided one of the few opportunities for women to wear trousers in public during the 1920s, a trend encouraged by Coco Chanel that set in motion their acceptance beyond the beach.

“Coco Chanel dressed women in trousers, which gave them the opportunity to run,” says Daniele Garcelon, general manager of the historic Monte Carlo Société des Bains de Mer hotels, which were frequented by the likes of Jean Cocteau, Picasso, Serge Diaghilev and Chanel. “She launched the vogue with sun-tanning, sporting, androgynous clothes and short hair. She revolutionised fashion for young modern women newly emancipated and the beach environment was a huge driver for that freedom.”

By the mid-1950s, Chanel’s athletic flappers were replaced by a bikini-clad Brigitte Bardot, and sex appeal and the swimsuit became inextricably linked. Dr Boydell describes the 1960s to 1990s as the “body beautiful era”, as exhibited by everyone from Jerry Hall to James Bond. The exhibition also includes the (relatively modest) swimsuit worn by Miss Great Britain in 1965. “By the time we get the 1980s where swimsuits have become really quite tiny and lots more two pieces and high-cut legs. They are very unforgiving, and the message is that it’s down to you to make sure your body is bikini perfect.”

But Dr Boydell believes the desire to enhance athletic performance and making women feel comfortable with their bodies is on the ascendant once more – as highlighted by the reaction to those Protein World ads. “The concept of getting ‘beach body ready’ feels a bit out of date now,” she concludes. “And today, innovation is coming from the competitive swimming industry and a desire to make people feel proud of their natural body shape.”

It is a trend that Harvey Nichols Lingerie and Swimwear buyer Priya Bal has observed. “With beachwear you have to remember that a customer will have a lot of flesh on show and she may feel more vulnerable and self-conscious than usual.” But Bal notes that in recent years the women who inspire her customer exhibit “power and body confidence”, rather than conventional beach-body perfection. “Today it’s about making your customer feel fearlessly stylish and most importantly, confident – I think that’s really refreshing.”

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