Policing Female Swimwear Is Nothing New

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Fashion became political in the south of France since the passing of bans towards “burqinis” or full body swimwear popularly worn by conservative muslims. The ruling has been overturned in French courts, but some French mayors are planning to enforce the ban.

France has held some controversy for what some state is a profiling of muslim women who wear burqinis or other conservative, full covering clothing at a beach. There has been an assortment of fines and forced clothing removals that have occurred on French beaches, and French politicians have spoken harshly about Muslim woman dress. “I simply forbid a uniform that is the symbol of Islamic extremism. We live in a common public space, there are rules to follow,” said David Lisnard, Mayor of Cannes.

This politicizing of female bodies while on the beach is sadly nothing new. The most recent ban on women’s swimwear resembles what occurred to America during the early 20th century. Instead of full body and head coverings, women were arrested and fined for revealing too much skin, which makes the current French controversy even more ironic.

Policing The Beach

The number of arrests and punishments towards women in the early 1900s was due to the changing views of swimwear. Instead of sporting the proper wool “bathing gown” with full, knee-length skirt and stockings, some young flappers embraced one-piece maillots that revealed the chest, arms and legs. This was not only seen as a stylish statement, but also a brave one. Numerous women were fined and forcibly arrested for not wearing proper coverings or pushing their stockings too low below the knee. Sheriffettes were created in Queens, New York in 1919 to solely monitor women’s swimwear. A famous photograph taken at a Chicago beach in 1922 provides a literal example of how women’s bodies were controlled. There were numerous modesty laws monitoring the length of female’s suit bottoms and tops, and it was accepted to harass women who revealed too much skin.

The acceptance of skin revealing swimwear began in the late 1920s and has resulted into being the norm for many countries. This movement towards the trend is credited to Australian celebrity Annette Kellerman who sought out a better option for women’s swimsuits.

The Venus Of The South Seas

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One of the most famous women of her time, Annette Kellerman is credited for inventing and popularizing the “one-piece swimming costume for women” that allowed them to freely swim for the first time in centuries.

Born in New South Wales, Australia in 1887, Kellerman grew to fame as a vaudevillian, movie star, and professional athlete. In 1905 Kellerman invented a one-piece swimming costume with cap sleeves and, what we now identify as, shorts that was based on men’s swimsuits of that time. Kellerman also offered a “modesty panel” that covered the lower waist and thighs.

The outfit was much more streamlined than the regulated swimming costume and much less cumbersome. According to Christine Schmidt, Kellerman was a modern woman who, “grew up in Australia with relative freedom from social constraints, learning to swim, dive, and publicly compete in body-baring swimsuits.”
Kellerman’s swimsuit gained national attention after her 1907 arrest for indecency on Revere Beach, Boston. Kellerman was training for a promotional event and wore her one-piece swimsuit. When she went to trial, the judge, “accepted her arguments in favour of swimming as healthy exercise and against cumbersome bathing suits, provided she wore a robe until she entered the water.” Kellerman ignored the robe ruling and continued to wear and sell her swimsuits. Today, her swimsuit can be seen on view at the exhibit, “Million Dollar Mermaid: Annette Kellerman” at the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo, New South Wales, Australia.

If history is any indication, the policing of women’s swimwear in the Western world is nothing new. Although women have been fighting and arrested for showing skin, it appears covering up too much is a controversy too.


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