The Sociological Backdrop
Swimming as a sport is only one of several factors contributing to the evolution of the swimsuit during the late 1910s. The First World War, the musical theater, and Hollywood's silent movies and their bathing beauties, even the automobile and the mobility it confers--These and many factors contribute to freer clothing and a lifestyle which will culminate in the Roaring Twenties.
Bathing at beaches also undergoes a sociological change. The new railroads make beaches accessible, and tans become fashionable as a sign of affluence and health. Separate bathing areas for men and women are abandoned, and on the emerging mixed-sex beaches suit styles reflect a somewhat androgynous look for both sexes, although variation in the female species will include the bathing dress as well as the maillot pantaloon and its variations. On the beauty front, Venice Beach and Atlantic City become sites for bathing beauty contests, a new phenomena.
By the latter half of the teens, the swimsuit has become a truly specialized garment with more than one solidified design silhouettes. Bathing dresses are still seen, especially on the real beach, but they are increasingly rare in media. Unitard momentum continues into the late 1910s, both in its pure form (DB1650) as well as in more traditional theater attire of leotard and tights (RS1650). But there is a new kid in town and there is nowhere to better introduce it than this picture of 13 Keystone Bathing Girls. A whole bunch of them are wearing unitards, but simultaneously you can view the future (KY1650). And the future is legs...bare legs.
Kellerman and others experiment with wraps that bare the shoulders, arms, and legs--a silhouette whose species in formal language might be termed a strapless minidress (LM1635). But the wrap is too complicated for swimming--and the breakout direction is the maillot skirted pantaloon--the unitard minus its legs plus a skirt; the dress minimized.
The Maillot Silhouette Advances
The evolution of maillot in the late 1910s and early 1920s focuses on several major erogenous zones: the neckline (and cleavage bust), the legline (breaking out from the knee), and the crotch (skirt play). The neckline ranges from short-sleeved collared suits to open-necklinw tank tops. The garment can fit the body closely or be more flappy and loose. Because there usually has no internal support for the breasts, this braless maillot can be quite exhilarating, especially when tight fitting, skirtless, and wet (EK1610). This is daring for the resort and ahead of the curve. That cleavage is an established playground before the invention of swimwear does not mean cleavage is not in play here. In addition to the headlights, the maillot offers the possibilities not only of leanover front and center, but also in the armhole and from the side of the garment. Cleavage will remain in play but the focus now shifts to a new zone, and that involves baring the leg and the art of leggage.
Two similar silhouettes crystalize during this period, and together they define the maillot genus of swimwear. For it is the maillot--the one-piece swimsuit--which will dominate the next decades of swimwear. In fact the maillot may never go away since it has been retained ever since. Why we think of it as having many species is found in a Maillot Introduction because this is very much the era of the invention of the bathing maillot. Both silhouettes combine a tank top with bare knees; one is skirted and one is skirtless.
The first of these costumes is the maillot pantaloon species. The maillot pantaloon is, for all practical purposes, a one-piece swimming garment that covers the torso and the top part of the leg, typically leaving the arms bare, and knee bare. Hose, if it is worn, reaches upward and covers the foot, ankle and calf depending. The roots of the maillot pantaloon include the unitard and leotard of the stage and circus performer, the transformation by Annette Kellerman of the bathing dress, and by the more daring pinup models of the late oughts (e. g. GC0L246BS.).
In the new Hollywood bathing beauty Marie Prevost combines narrow shoulder straps, a scoop front with cleavage, a tight fit, and a very high legline into a compelling silhouette (MP1750). A postcard pinup version with hose (VG00S5_1029) and without (PC2030).
The maillot skirted pantaloon, like the maillot pantaloon, is a tank maillot with knee-length bloomers plus a short skirt that reaches below hip level and covers the crotch. This early version worn by Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty Harriet Hammond is on the frilly side (HH1710), but the silhouette quickly acquires the influences of the unskirted version and contours to the body (PD1810). The mature silhouette is a single layer woven or knit wool garment accessorized with shoes, socks (stockings) and a hat (PC2040). The skirt makes it more conservative and helps it to break out onto the real beach.
Both variations of the maillot pantaloons silhouette will sail into the early 1920s with vary little variance in total exposure. Both will disburse from the movie magazine to real beaches in Europe and the Americas but during that outing it is the maillot skirted pantaloon which will come to full maturity for both the bathing beauty as well as the fashion horse. And for good and practical and liberating reasons--one can swim in it safely. During the late teens pinup and fashion bring understanding to both silhouettes; now they can become more colorful, more contoured to the body and devoid of inner support, and with baroque details like buttons and bows, lattice-sides, and such. Satin, silk, and taffeta become alternate materials to wool, and rubberized fabrics are introduced after 1917. Patterns, especially stripes and geometrics, jersey and knitted fabrics also emerge. Short-sleeved and sleeveless styles will remain popular, as do a wide variety of shoulder straps and cleavage. The silhouette becomes more vertical, the "waistline" lowers, and the skirt and pantaloons assume a wide variety of proportions and relationships, two variables each with the run of the thigh.
The Battle over Leg
The revelation of bare leg doesn't happen all at once and is an ebb and flow situation around the world for years. For one thing Fashion is cautious about legs--and feet--and approaches them in more than one way. By the late 1910s the variants of raising or lowering the skirt, raising or lowering the pantaloons, lowering or loosing the hose, and slipping out of the shoes--these activities create an eroticism that is no longer one-dimensional. There are, in fact, at least 16 erotic combinations between these elements, and every last one of them are worked on throughout this period. This chart tracks two of the most important, the rising legline and the lowering ankleline (BSD8832). Whether the Fox Sunshine Girls, Hal Roach's Vanity Fair Maids, Mack Sennett, or some MGM Bathing Beauties, a group photograph is a careful combination of all of these factors plus several more (including cleavage and the absence of a hat). The boldest, of course, are the Beauties with the fewest accessories. You can see this if you look again at the first Keystone Girls--mostly covered legs, a rare bare leg and feet, but also, ah ha, some bare knees (KY1650). Thus the legline and ankleline provides competition in exposing leg. Ah, leggage. The uncovering of the ankle, the calf, the knee all occur during the late 1910s, but with considerable variation.
One approach is to uncover the leg by working up from the foot: bare the toe and heel in the tights, loose the straps and work upward.
Another approach, favored during the late 1910s, is to uncover the knee first. With this curious fission; the exposure opens up from a fracture point on the body and spreads in two directions. Framed above by the bloomer, the legline can rise up the thigh toward the crotch. Framed below the knee by stockings, the ankleline can bare down the calf, with the bare leg following hose as it is rolled downward (BSD8832). It was no wonder that Ziegfield star Ann Pennington is called "The Girl With Dimpled Knees" (AP1710).
As the teens progress, men and women attempt to raise the pantaloons and expose more thigh, but they are met with official resistance. Meanwhile women let their exposed leg creep downward. Hose, initially rising above the knee and obscured by the bathing dress, gradually lowers. Dorothy Dalton casts the proper silhouette with knee bare and calf and thigh equally covered (DD1850). In Paris the hose are rolled down and the pantaloon is skirtless (VG00B0_068), and the legline goes up (VG00Q0_590). Shoes and socks cover Gloria Swanson's ankles and calves, but her maillot defines a compact silhouette (GS1740). This suggestive pinup is sans shoes and has her hose rolled down (VG1050_912). Toward the end of the decade socks with high boots become of stable of Max Sennett's Bathing Beauties, until only just the high boots remain (PD1810). Strappy shoes, with and without hose (VG00Y0_3139) soon gather attention, so that the leg is now bare from above the knee to the ankle, although shoes remain an integral part of the bathing costume (VG1L20, PC2030).
Finally, still moving quickly and at the turn of the decade, the shoe is abandoned completely, and the erogenous and often hidden feet are now put on full display, be it an erotic painting (PP1810), a postcard pinup (PC1L10, VG00T0BS), or, as is often the case, the lead is taken by an emerging movie star (BL1950). Even so, the abandonment of shoes is by no means universal either in pinup pictures or on the real beach.
But always a hat remains mandatory coverage for the proper woman on a public beach.
Nudity in the Cinema
Hollywood takes a turn to the more extreme after 1915 when it discovers that the public's appetite for the moves goes beyond the one-reeler. Using Biblical, historical, moral, and naturalist arguments de-nudity acquires a lot of velocity during the Great War. We have just recounted events in our primary focus, the swimsuit. In the surrounding culture there exists bejeweled Queens of cinema, vamps, and harem dancers. Griffith is already offering up topless extras in his epics, and after 1915 Theda Bara's breastplates and see-through (TB1710-14) accelerate the pace.
Australian swim champ, swimsuit pioneer, and diving tank performer Annette Kellerman is also not to be outdone by Theda Bara. She has already achieved fame as an athlete and inventor of the unitard (AK0650), which she introduces to the movies before the turn of the decade (AK0915) . In the early 1910s she stars in a series of aquatic pictures playing Sirens, Mermaids, and Neptune's Daughter. As these pictures progressed they show more of Kellerman's legs. Already a public advocate of the maillot pantaloon swimsuit the now big name star in the big-budget A Daughter of the Gods, sheds her swimsuit completely and bathes nude in the outdoors (AK1610). More controversy erupts.
Kellerman's maillotless movie advocates the naturalist movement. As an athlete and spokesman for the advancement of women, Kellerman is convincing women everywhere to adopt the one-piece swimsuit. But advocacy for the naturalist movement, however, including nudity in the cinema will remain a battleground into the next decade, with Clara Bow, Heddy Lamarr and others dancing that line.
The Andrea Munson Sidebar
Kellerman is not alone in bringing nudity to the movies. Like now, déshabillé is practiced not just in the movies but in fashion, on stage, and in magazines. One of Kellerman's peers is another socialite, New York City artists' model Andrea Munson. Like Kellerman, Munson builds strength in New York in the first half of the decade when she achieves celebrity status as a famous nude sculptors' model. The short version is her fame lands her a Hollywood contract to play a nude model on film (MU15-21). Some say this is a first.
For the Bikini Scientist Munson is interesting because she demonstrates crossover talent, she is a "new media girl." Her likenesses are in all cases replicas, formed in one case in stone or paint and in the other in celluloid. But she moves her talent and dignity from one form to the other. This is, in Goffman terms, a framing shift, further framed by her role as a model.
On Stage at the Dance Hall
Other movie stars also choose to wear very little, even by modern standards. Alla Nazimova bares her navel in this "pre-bikini bikini" (AZ191710) and Kellerman is another who adopts the bare-midriff, low-waistline look (AK1620).
While women on the real beach grapple with the politics of the leg, the view into the future is found in the nightclubs of Paris, where deux-pièces, soutien-gorge of all descriptions, waistlines that reveal the belly button, long legs, and bare breast topless costumes abound (CP2000). These exposures, begun in the early part of the decade will only gain momentum in the 1920s, be checked in the 1930s, and emerge again in the 1940s and beyond.