Decency and Design: The History of Measuring Swimsuits

Swimsuits and the notion of measuring them for decency have a long and complex history in the United States. The regulation of swimwear reveals not only changing fashion trends but also the evolving social and moral values of American society.

At the beginning of the 20th century, swimwear was vastly different from what we know today. Swimsuits, typically called bathing costumes or bathing suits, were often made of wool and covered most of the body, leaving only the arms and legs exposed.

These garments were more functional than fashionable and were primarily designed to preserve modesty and protect the swimmer’s skin from the sun.

The early 1900s marked a period when societal norms placed a strong emphasis on modesty and decorum. As a result, swimwear was designed to adhere to these standards. Both men and women were required to wear swimsuits that covered their bodies from neck to knee. Any exposure of the skin was considered immodest.

The Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman played a significant role in challenging these norms. In 1907, she was arrested for wearing a one-piece swimsuit that exposed her arms, legs, and neck. Kellerman’s arrest brought attention to the impracticality of traditional swimwear for women and set the stage for changes in swimsuit design.

The 1920s saw a significant shift in fashion and swimwear. Women’s swimwear became more streamlined and practical. The iconic flapper style of the 1920s extended to beach fashion, with women wearing one-piece swimsuits that were more revealing than ever before. However, these swimsuits were still conservative by today’s standards, covering the upper arms and legs.

The true revolution in swimwear came in 1946 when French engineer Louis Réard introduced the bikini. The bikini, which exposed the navel and much more skin than earlier swimsuits, was initially met with resistance in the United States.

Many conservative communities and beach destinations banned the bikini, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that it became widely accepted.

Even as swimwear styles continued to evolve, concerns over decency persisted. Public opinion and laws reflected varying degrees of conservatism, particularly in more conservative states or towns. There were cases where local authorities enforced regulations requiring swimwear that covered the chest and upper legs.

The mid-20th century saw the rapid transformation of swimwear into more revealing and fashion-forward designs. Bikinis became popular, and swim trunks for men became shorter.

These changes sparked debates about modesty, and some communities reacted by imposing rules on swimwear, including dress codes at public pools and beaches.

The portrayal of swimwear in Hollywood movies played a significant role in shaping societal perceptions. Iconic stars like Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, and Ursula Andress set new standards for swimwear fashion. Their influence extended beyond fashion trends, helping to normalize more daring swimsuit choices.

In the 1970s, swimwear became even more revealing. Bikinis and various two-piece swimsuits became commonplace, and styles continuously evolved.

The late 20th century and early 21st century saw the rise of thong-style and string bikinis, as well as men’s swim trunks that left little to the imagination.

The concept of measuring swimsuits for decency has faded over time. Today, swimwear is highly diversified, with styles ranging from modest one-pieces to highly revealing swim briefs. Public attitudes have shifted toward greater body acceptance and diversity, leading to a more inclusive approach to swimwear fashion.

The history of measuring swimsuits for decency in the United States reflects broader changes in societal norms, fashion trends, and evolving notions of modesty.

From the early 20th-century concerns about exposing skin to the bikini revolution and the subsequent diversification of swimwear, the story of swimsuits in the United States is a dynamic and ever-evolving one.

It demonstrates how swimwear has been a barometer of shifting cultural values and a reflection of changing attitudes towards the human body. Today, individual choice and body positivity have taken precedence over measuring swimsuits for decency.

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