Every year come springtime, lifestyle magazines, TV programs and online features dish out advice on ‘how to get beach body ready’ in anticipation for the summer months spent lounging on the beach, frolicking in the sea or, at the very least, relaxing next to a public pool.
We are provided with suggestions for workouts to tackle our possibly soft bellies and cellulite-ridden thighs as well as with tips to remove unwanted hair from any imaginable body part.
Once beach-body-ready these perfectly sculpted bodies are then about to receive their final finish as they are bronzed by the summer sun, ideally without leaving any tan lines behind.
At POP we are interested in the ways swim suits and other related garment inventions reflect or resist and subvert these types of discourses and social norms. What kinds of bodies are welcome in public spaces? What kinds of bodies are framed as beautiful and healthy? What does the “ideal citizen” look like and how do clothing inventions support or even shape this look?
Every year come springtime, lifestyle magazines, TV programs and online features dish out advice on ‘how to get beach body ready’
Many inventors, as our POP clothing patent database shows, have for almost a century tried to design clothing that helps prevent wretched tan lines while enabling people to relish in the delights of sun bathing. In their adjustments for tanning, but also in the relatively small amount of body coverage provided by the fabric, these swimsuits differ markedly from women’s bathing costumes a decade or two earlier.
Early bathing suits for women, like the 1914 US example below by Mary E. Street, often consisted of multiple substantial pieces of clothing including a shirt, bloomers and/or a skirt as well as tights (Pat. US1111193A). They more closely resembled women’s regular outerwear than what we today identify as swimwear.
Sewn from regular cotton or knit fabrics these bathing suits made swimming a rather difficult (not to say dangerous) activity as they dragged wearers down in the water and could easily catch in any type of obstacle or, for example, vegetation in a lake.
How do clothing inventions support, shape or subvert swimwear?
A 1914 three-piece bathing suit for women by Mary E. Street.
As with many other sports, women, for much of the early nineteenth century, had been publicly prohibited from swimming. Physical activity, especially for middle and upper-class women was seen an impediment to women’s fertility and as generally harmful to women’s supposedly delicate nerves (Parker 2010, 678-679).
However, since water ‘hid’ most of the active female body, swimming eventually became one of a few sports around the turn of the century in which women were able to forge a presence for themselves and even gained access to professional competitions (Parker 2010; Winterton 2009).
Throughout the nineteenth century, pale skin unmarked by the sun was a sign of privilege and served as a distinguishing marker between middle- and upper-class man and women and those from the labouring classes.
Pale skin suggested that a person was privileged enough to remain indoors and seek shade at all times while working class men and women gained a tan as they laboured outdoors or were required to travel without sufficient protection from the sun.
This view, however, shifted especially in the 1930s when a practice called heliotherapy became en vogue and physicians in Europe and North America heralded the benefits of exposure to the sun to people’s health (Johnston 2005, 112).
In the 1930s, a practice called heliotherapy became en vogue and physicians in Europe and North America heralded the benefits of exposure to the sun to people’s health
Responding to these new developments, a 1932 swimsuit by Teresina-Maria Negri from France, for example, includes special inserts made from lace, tulle, or any other sunlight- permitting material, so that the wearer could benefit from exposure to the sun without risking indecent exposure in public (Pat. FR734167A).
A 1932 patent by Teresina-Maria Negri for a swimsuit suitable for heliotherapy.
In a 1932 patent for a ‘Bathing Suit’ the inventor Richard Lorenz from Chicago has gone to considerable length to create a bathing suit ‘for women and girls’ which includes ‘bust-supporting means’ that are secured to the side and front of the suit (Pat. US1844888A).
As a result, the bathing suit comes with a reasonably low-cut back for tanning while also providing support for the bust during swimming.
A 1932 patent for a bust supporting bathing suit by Richard Lorenz.
Sun bathing and tanning became connected activities
Frenchman Jules Pierres Entraygues’ 1934 patent resolves the same issue through means of a variable system of straps and fasteners at the back of the swim suit (Pat. GB407525A). This way the front of the suit and in particularly the bust area can still be firmly secured during swimming while tan lines can also be avoided through regular (though perhaps slightly inconvenient) rearrangement of the straps across the back.
Regular rearrangement of the straps is to provide for an evenly tanned back in this 1934 swimsuit patent.
Sun-protecting swimwear has also become popular
Sun bathing and swimming became conveniently connected activities. Both were deemed appropriate leisure activities for women because they did not involve active or sweaty female bodies on direct display.
In a reversal of the nineteenth-century ideal, sun bathing and the immaculate tan gained from it became signs of privilege in the Global North. They signaled that people had sufficient free time to be spend lounging by the water as well as the financial means to pay for access to a public pool or a holiday by the beach.
The carefully curated lack of tan lines was evidence of this privilege as opposed to the strong contours of the so-called ‘farmer’s tan’ which many workers inadvertently developed as a result of labouring outdoors in the summer (Chen et al. 2018; Johnston 2005).
A 1994 Japanese patent for a full-body swimsuit that is to screen the wearer from the sun.
Tanning is not only about class privilege, but also about race
Tanning, however, is not only about class privilege, but also about race. Contrary to assumptions about sun bathing, leisure and privilege in relation to white people particularly in the Global North, to be of lighter skin colour is often associated with privilege and higher social status in communities of colour.
The large market of whitening skin products has long been a testament to this as are many swimsuit patents especially from South and Southeast Asia. For example, the above 1994 Japanese patent for a full-body swimsuit almost entirely covers the body of the wearer to shield it from the sun (Pat. JPH0673111U).
Below 2005 swimming outfit by Su Xiujie from China even includes a sun-screening face mask that is to be worn while swimming (Pat. CN2735792Y).
Su Xiujie from China designed this mask to screen the face from the sun during swimming.
However, it is important to note that, as L. Ayu Saraswati argues, this desire for whiteness in many communities of color is not simply a desire for the kind of ‘Caucasian whiteness’ associated with the unequal flow of power in a postcolonial world order. Instead, Saraswati suggests that it can also resemble a desire for a ‘cosmopolitan whiteness’ that embodies ‘transnational mobility’ (2010, 15).
Attempting to move beyond biological concepts of race and whiteness, she argues that ‘there is no one race or ethnic group in particular that can occupy an authentic cosmopolitan white location because there has never been a “real” whiteness to begin with: whiteness is a virtual quality, neither real nor unreal’ (2010, 18). While the effects of colorism and white supremacy are certainly real and unequally felt by people of colour, ‘race, gender, and skin color are not only socially and visually constructed but also affectively, virtually, and transnationally’ (Saraswati 2010, 18) and, as POP hopes to show, also materially through clothing.
Sun-protecting swimwear, however, also gained popularity in the Global North from the 1980s onwards, albeit for different reasons. With concerns about skin cancer and the negative effects of tanning on the rise, exposing large parts of the body to the sun for an extended period of time was no longer seen as conducive to one’s health but as something to be actively avoided.
Nonetheless, the ideal bronzed beach body is still popular. And this much sought-after beach body that is to be put on public display is of course ideally also a skinny body with spotless skin. In fact, according to the inventor, the full-body swimsuit I have shared above is also a convenient way of covering up any body hair or skin blemishes. Naturally, the weight loss, cosmetics and fitness industry are equally keen on cashing in on the desire for such a body.
In 2015, the British Advertising Standards Authority actually banned posters featuring a very slim model in a bikini and the slogan ‘Are you beach body ready?’ over concerns about the weight loss claims made in relation to the featured product (Sweney 2015).
A stock photo of a woman with a much sought-after immaculate beach body. Photo credit: Nikita Shirokov @shirokov
Both clothing and women’s bodies then become a site across and through which different notions of citizenship are negotiated
This 2004 patent from Russia (below) for a swimsuit to be used ‘on beaches for resting, swimming, as well as for having sun and air bath’ illustrates this (Pat. RU2228691C1).
While the inventor praises the garment for its ‘simplified construction and increased comfort’, the lascivious posture of the model in the drawing and her high heels that appear to make walking on any kind of beach nearly impossible indicate the extent of which a sexualised display of women’s bodies is part of the culture of sun bathing (Verklan 2020).
At the other end of this spectrum, there are stories and images of heavily armed French police at the beach asking women dressed in burkini’s to leave or change.
Since the summer of 2016, multiple French authorities have banned this particular type of swimwear often worn by Muslim women over concerns of religious dress in public space and French national values (Quinn 2016). Both clothing and women’s bodies then become a site across and through which different notions of citizenship are negotiated.
The beach (and by extension also the pool or lake side) becomes a space where certain bodies are valued more than others. Just somewhat over a century ago, women’s bodies had to be covered with lots of material and the sight of women swimmers and sun bathers was quite the public spectacle.
While the material conventions have changed, female beach bodies – women’s bodies on the beach – continue to be a spectacle for a variety of reasons.
Chen, H.-Y., Yarnal, C., Chick, G., & Jablonski, N. (2018). Egg White or Sun-Kissed: A Cross-Cultural Exploration of Skin Color and Women’s Leisure Behavior. A Journal of Research, 78(3), 255–271. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-017-0785-4
Parker, C. (2010). Swimming: The “Ideal” Sport for Nineteenth-century British Women. The International Journal of the History of Sport, 27(4), 675–689. https://doi.org/10.1080/09523361003600033
Quinn, B. (2016). French police make woman remove clothing on Nice beach following burkini ban. The Guardian. Accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/24/french-police-make-woman-remove-burkini-on-nice-beach
Saraswati, L. Ayu (2010). Cosmopolitan Whiteness: The Effects and Affects of Skin- Whitening Advertisements in a Transnational Women’s Magazine in Indonesia. Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, 10(2), 15–41. https://doi.org/10.2979/meridians.2010.10.2.15
Sweney, M. (2015). ‘Beach body ready’ ad banned from returning to tube, watchdog rules. The Guardian. Accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/apr/29/beach-body-ready-ad-faces-formal-inquiry-as-campaign-sparks-outrage
Verklan, E. 2020. Sex on the Beach: Swimwear and the Politics of Gender. The Fashion Studies Journal. Accessed at: http://www.fashionstudiesjournal.org/commentary/2020/4/30/sex-on-the-beach-swimwear-and-the-politics-of-gender
Winterton, R. (2009). “A Question of Propriety?”: Women’s Competitive Swimming in Melbourne, 1893-1900. The International Journal of the History of Sport: Australasia and the Pacific, 26(14), 2086–2105. https://doi.org/10.1080/09523360903303052
Pat. GB407525A. Jules Pierre Entraygues, France, ‘Improvements in or relating to bathing and swimming costumes or similar apparel for sunbathing and like purposes’, 22 March 1934. Accessed at the EPO Espacenet www.epo.org