July/august 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 5
Fashion disposes, the camera exposes. Here’s what was new and exciting for half a century. It didn’t seem quaint then.
Like women’s lives, women’s swimsuits were repeatedly remodeled during the first half of this century. Unwilling to miss anything, photographers kept close watch, and a new pictorial genre came energetically and profitably to life. Although the female shape had been used in racy photographs since the beginning of photography, models were usually decked in stage trappings or else appeared in the artistic nude. Swimsuits were then so cumbersome that only stylized graphics could make them attractive, and wearing them made women look like heavily wrapped packages.
During the First World War women were urged to inspire and distract the boys as they marched off to battle or came home on leave. A new coquettishness began to affect female swimwear as daring exposures overtook everyday dress and corsets were abandoned. Collarbones and elbows, ankles and calves came into view on the street, and evening dresses, suspended by the thinnest of shoulder straps, bared even the armpit. On the beach, instead of fending off masculine attention with massive yardage, it now became entirely respectable, even a tinge patriotic, to begin cautiously to gratify the searching male gaze, and with it the camera’s greedy eye.
And so the bathing beauty was born, as American as apple pie and ultimately as remote from female active sport. The camera quickly shaped her and focused on her—in groups, in phalanxes, or most often piece by piece—and, along with the eager eyes of all the world, has not lost sight of her for a minute ever since.