The Late 1930s
The late 1930s are one of many of those defining moments of Swimwear, when both in America and Europe the maillot matures its struggle with the emerging deux-pièces. These are the years leading into the beginning of the Second World War, but in terms of socialogicl evolution swimwear continues to get more fitted to the body, sleeker perhaps, and augmenting the belly as a visible erogonious zone. The bare belly is loose--it always has been there in the theater including the movies--but not it threatens to mainstream. Now it is headed to the beach as the maillot compacts to a halter, and introduces various cutout designs. Bellage is upon us, as the deux-pièces gathers momentum--driven by multiple social forces.
The Haltered Maillot Evolves
During the late 1930s the basic tank maillot migrates from the pages of Hollywood glamour magazines (BL3L50) to the real beach (DH3870), although skirt and pantalooned variations tend to vanish.
One major evolution is that the tighter fit, opened-up armhole, and baring of the back produce a shift in strap design, in which the two shoulder straps connect behind the neck, rather than at the back of the maillot (CL3610, GD3650, PE3710). This permits the armhole line to be drawn even lower at the sides, well below the bustline, and open up more skin on the side of the torso and breast. And it enables the backline to recede even further downward and descend to the waist. The halter silhouette also migrates quickly from the pages of movie magazines to the real beach (NG3701), in both its skirted (JZ3660) and unskirted forms (JZ3850).
Both silhouettes--the tank maillot and and haltered maillot--will continue to be stables throughout the balance of the decade, although in almost all cases the legline eases and became level with the crotch, be the silhouette be worn by a movie star (JH3610, RD3950), athlete (LM37D5), or on the real beach (DH3870).
The change from knitted to more stretchy, fitting fabrics also takes place during this period (JZ3630), but aside from the playfulness of the sort skirt which sometimes covers the crotch but not the buttocks (a silhouette called the maillot sheath (fig. 9-5), the maillot silhouette will change little through the following decades, although by the 1950s the suit gets stiffer, adding elastic, boning, stays, corseting and bra foundations.
Throughout this period straps serve as an eroticizer--thinning or sliding off the shoulder. By the 1950s, the newer, stiffer elastic maillots can stay up with the straps off, or missing. These skirtless strapless maillots minimize the maillot and it is not certain that a smaller maillot exists. In fact, throughout the bikini era, maillot developments are by and large dormant; not until the 1980s are they nudged back into motion, with leglines-that-meet-armholes and a rediscovery of cutouts.
One of the driving forces for the deux-pièces breakout gains momentum in the mid-1930s when maillot cutout acquires mainstream appeal. Although maillot cutouts appear before the 1930s in pinup pictures, it is in the early thirties that the cutouts are seriously treated in fashion (EG3410, JZ3550) and advertising (CC3410).
These first cutouts, pioneered by Claire McCardell, excise fabric out of the sides of the maillot (AS3530), but by the end of the decade the designs become bolder, when Margit Fellegi clips an isosceles triangle right out of the front of the maillot, integrating a bare stomach into the basic one-piece design (CC39AA). The result is one of those events that appears at a focal point of a transition, in this case a species which bridges the discontinuity between maillot and ddeux-pièces.
The triangle cutout maillot also resonates with the basic maillot halter design. The belly exposure runs the width of the front and above the navel, and apexes on the sternum just below the breasts. The sides of the triangle cutout mirror the neckline and encase the breasts in a bow tie dynamic that resembles the counter-tensioned slide-side halter and deep v-bottomed bikini of the future 1980s. For Hollywood movie stars, it is an alternative to the deux-pièces, and a bit more restrained (VL4007).
The maillot cutout struggles throughout the late 1930s with the onslaught of the deux-pièces. Fellegi introduces x-backed straps and opens the stomach further (CC39BB), but a maillot trying to be a two-piece is a short-lived compromise and ready to let go. By the 1940s, the maillot cutout has become extinct, and it remains so until the 1960s, when it is reintroduced for a the opposite reason--a bikini becoming a maillot.
These initial developments are plotted on the Belly-Up/Belly Down Chart (BSD8830).
Although the maillot cutout provides an excellent example of a transition species, one must observe that the bra and brief combination has been a stable of the musical review since the early years of the 19th century. So the idea of the deux-pièces certainly predates its evolution in swimwear. Perhaps the role of the maillot cutout is that of a transition aid, and a way for the public to make a gradual transition, rather than a leap, to the bare-midriffed two-piece silhouette.
The Struggle for the Deux-pièces
As already discussed, the evolution of the two-piece swimsuit is driven by multiple factors. One certainly involves the fissured maillot: once a narrow, but complete, ring of midriff has been excised from maillot, the ring of belly can be permitted to grow (LA3301, JH3710). And the swimsuit really does consist of two pieces.
Because the fissured halter and briefs so strongly mimic the lines of the maillot some Bikini Scientists debate whether to call this a deux-pièces, because to do so overlooks the strong maillot lines (AS3530, AS3520, AS3610). Some may argue the species is better classified as a variety of maillot, for example, a maillot separate or maillot two-piece. Such discussions may never be resolved.
Although the maillot cutout provides an excellent example of a transition species, one must observe that the bra and brief combination has been a stable of the musical review since the early years of the 19th century, including its cinema manifestation throughout the early 1930s. So the idea of the deux-pièces certainly predates its evolution in swimwear. Perhaps the role of the maillot cutout is that of a transition aid, and a way for the public to make a gradual transition, rather than a leap, to the bare-midriff two-piece silhouette.
The deux-pièces is also driven by resort wear (AN3L50), and by halter tops which bare a sliver of belly (MX3H50).
The Deux-Pièces Opens Up
Of course once the belly opens up wider any residual influence of the maillot silhouette vanishes. Out of the maillot's upper half the halter top is introduced into swimwear: a string tie around the neck, and a down-sweeping underarm line that passes the sides of the breasts and bares the back (fig. 11-2). Stomach comes into full play. A beauty queen might expose only the narrowest circumference of stomach, but how she moves, stretches, leans over controls the amount of her midriff exposure (fig. 11-3).
The bottoms of the newly established deux-pièces tend to follow the lines of the maillot. Hips are elasticized and the crotch is initially sheathed, skirted, or knot-tied to adjust the snugness of closure.
By and large, the deux-pièces swimsuit is an innovation lead by the Europeans, who begin taking the bold separation piece by piece. The French introduce halter and bra tops as early as 1933. Clearly defined separates are spotted in trendy resorts in the summer. These include halter and shorts combinations (LA3301, LA3304).) as well as the fully-formed bra and panty culotte deux-pièces (LA3303).
By 1935 English beauty contestants are exposing the underside of the breasts (EB3510), American starlets are starting to wear the extremely daring halter and shorts to the beach (JW359J), and French Vogue highlights a water-skier clad in a basic bra top and skirtless panty-cut briefs (FV3510).
In 1936 Life magazine shares the latest shocker with its readers, showing pinup Betty Cook, a Miami darling wearing a tight fitting and very daring bare midriff swimsuit (BC3650) with a clasp at the front of the halter that gathers it in and helps form a chevron of bare belly. Life, never a pinup magazine but always a magazine with pinups and a chronicler of trends, hints at the future.
any Americans think the deux-pièces is "too much," meaning too little, and the introduction of the deux-pièces occurs at the same time that men are successfully gaining the right to go barechested on the beach. Hollywood old-timers, like Greta Garbo stick to regressive designs (GG4110) and very a narrow belly displays, where as the newcomers take advantage of the permissive edge (VL3909). During the late 1930s a variety of ideas will be advanced, including the bandeau (PO3610, DL3920), the lattice-side brief (VT3710), and the novelty suit (PC3910). The exposure of the navel, rare in even the pre-code world (e.g., TJ3410-70) is largely absent after the mid-1930s, and Tarzan's Jane covers up (TJ3910-30). Exceptions come from this dance costume in Germany (HF3950), and a painting from England (OC3810). It is not until the mid-1940s that the stomach is universally exposed on the American beach, and not just by pinups and movie stars. But by then, the French will have already popularized the bikini.
Maillot Species Stabelize
But the maillot is not about to become extinct. Before the end of the 1930s it will resolve a series of silhouettes that will vie for attention simultaneously with the deux-pièces; this competition will last throughout the 1950s. These maillot species include the already mentioned strapped tank maillot, as well as the halter neck and the x-back, but also the daring strapless (PS3850, PG3950). All of the various skirted and unskirted variations will persist, including the sheath, in which the skirt only exists on the front side.
Life magazine sums up the end of the 1930s in a short picture essay titled "End of an Era of Bathing-Suit Evolution," and which identifies the "strapless maillot," the "open midriff suit" (the deux-pièces), and what Life calls "variations," which include "hybrid-type strapless, two-piece suits." This is a pretty accurate assessment of the state of the art (LM4099).