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In 2016, a wave of French mayors created bans of “burqinis” or full body swimwear popularly worn by conservative Muslims. The offense was that the garment displayed overt religiosity. Women caught wearing the illegal clothing where punished with fines and were subject to public ridicule. This ruling has since been overturned in French courts, but it reflects a public unease towards how and what women wear for a swim.
This incident of policing female bodies while at the beach is nothing new. The most recent ban on women’s swimwear resembles what occurred in America during the early 20th century. Instead of swimming in full head and body coverings, women were arrested and fined for revealing too much skin.
Policing The Beach
In the early 20th century, a proper ‘bathing gown’ was made from wool with a full, knee-length skirt and stockings. It was not the most practical or fashionable way to swim, so some women sought more stylish alternatives. What many selected were one-piece maillots that had a scoop neckline, sleeveless or short sleeves, shortened leg coverings, and reduced volume at the legs and waists. These stylish statements were controversial because the suits’ designs went against indecency laws in the United States. As a result, police (or sometimes called Sheriffettes) monitored the length of a female’s suit bottoms and tops at beaches and swimming establishments. Like with the burqinis, harassment towards women wearing these suits was socially accepted. If found ‘guilty,’ women were fined and forcibly arrested. A famous photograph taken at a Chicago beach in 1922 shows how brutal policing was towards these women.
The social acceptance of maillots began to grow in the late 1920s and has resulted in being the norm for many countries. The movement towards acceptance is credited to Australian professional swimmer and celebrity Annette Kellerman.
The Venus Of The South Seas
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One of the most famous women of her time, Kellerman is credited for inventing and popularizing the ‘one-piece swimming costume for women.’ This form of swimwear is noted as the first suit to allow women to swim freely for the first time in centuries.
Born in New South Wales, Australia in 1887, Kellerman was a vaudevillian, movie star, and professional athlete. 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.” In 1905 Kellerman invented a one-piece swimming costume with cap sleeves and shorts, which was based on men’s swimsuits of that time, and was less cumbersome than the regulated wool swimming costume. For swimmers not yet ready to display all of this skin, Kellerman also offered a modesty panel that covered the lower waist and thighs.
Kellerman’s swimsuit gained national attention in 1907 when, after training for a promotional event and wearing her one-piece swimsuit, she was arrested for indecency. As like the incidents mentioned above, Kellerman’s arrest occurred in the United States, specifically Boston. 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.
Suiting Up With Acceptance
If history is any indication, the policing of women’s swimwear in the Western world is a waste of government resources. Rather, energy would be better spent supporting women to wear what makes them comfortable, showing skin or not, when taking a dip or swimming a lap.