walking into it, the "modesty hoods" attached to these
machines keeping the submersion process hidden. The paranoia over
personal safety as well as the strict segregation of male and female
bathers eventually passed, and by the turn of the century desegregated
bathing was common, particularly at seaside resorts. Still, bathing
apparel for women was only
somewhat less voluminous than everyday street wear. Martin and
Koda explain that the "long civil war of swimwear" went
on for nearly three decades. In the early years of the twentieth
century, women began to reveal their arms; by the 1920s the war
intensified over the progressive revelation of women's legs; and
by the 1930s the primary change in swimwear was that men began to
go without shirts.
one-piece bathing suit, which had been popularized by the
champion swimmer and later star of vaudeville and motion pictures,
Kellerman, was legally banned in some parts of the country.
Kellerman herself was arrested for indecent exposure when
she first appeared in her "body stocking" style
suit at Boston's Revere Beach in 1908, and responses toward
her attire would not have been much different in many places
throughout the United States until late in the 1920s. Not
only was the sleek Kellerman-
style suit physically freeing compared with the bulky yards of fabric
in which women had formerly "bathed," but it was specifically
problematic in that it quite clearly revealed the contours of the
female figure. The suit was doubly offensive to some when stockings
were eliminated or were not worn according to regulations, which
usually meant they were rolled below the knees. In any case, the
Kellerman," or more simply, the one-piece bathing costume,
was considered the most daring kind of bathing apparel and therefore
became the focus of many censorship efforts, not to mention sarcastic
beach censorship was directed specifically at women. Although women
and men enjoyed the nation's public swimming sites together by the
1920s, men's swimsuit codes, even if similar to those imposed on
women, were not usually stressed and so received considerable attention
when they were. For example, in Zion City, a small town near Lake
Michigan in the northernmost part of Illinois, a ruling that men's
bathing suits must be long enough to cover their knees and that
a "skirt flapping over the thighs must be worn" was reported
by major newspapers in both Chicago and New York.
examples of beach censorship and regulation indicate not only particular
concerns about decorum but also more general and historically grounded
anxieties about cultural "playgrounds" as sites of sexual
transgression. In previous eras such worries were allayed at the
nation's beaches in part by segregating the sexes for swimming and,
later, by using "modesty hoods" to conceal women's bodies.
In the 1920s the "beach
censor" who patrolled the shore assumed a primary place
as guardian of public morality when America went swimming. Not all
municipalities, of course, assigned the title of "censor"
to the person(s) whose job it was to regulate behavior at places
designated for public bathing. Whether "copette," "tailoress-censor,"
or simply a police officer, the job endowed its possessor with considerable
authority and sometimes not insignificant financial remuneration.
Certainly, lifeguards also monitored swimmers, but responsibility
for enforcing codes of conduct was, at least in more heavily utilized
locations, clearly distinct from that of lifesaving.
people generally found ingenious and sometimes impudent ways
to circumvent unpopular clothing regulations. In Hawaii, for
example, a clergyman senator, Stephen Desha of Hilo Island,
unhappy with local bathers' indiscretions in public places,
enacted a law that no one over fourteen years of age could
appear in a swimsuit unless "covered suitably by an outer
garment reaching at least to the knees." It was later
announced that bathers had begun to throw bath towels and
mackinaw coats around their waists, thereby keeping their
knees covered. These means, one report wryly noted, "did
not fully accomplish the object of the law."13
sometimes extreme opposition between forces for and against
the rights of a woman to define "suitable" bathing
attire for herself are nowhere more vividly illustrated than
in an incident leading to the arrest of Louise
Rosine, a resident of Los Angeles who visited Atlantic
City in the late summer of 1921.
rejection of what she felt were unreasonable dress codes and the
circumstances surrounding her blatant defiance of them provide a
vivid glimpse of the clash between opposing ideologies of "appropriate"
femininity that coexisted in American culture in the early 1920s.
Rosine's ordeal began when she refused to roll up her stockings
to cover her knees when ordered to do so by a police officer. News
reports of the incident describe this recalcitrant woman in detail,
compared with many women noted in stories about noncompliance with
bathing suit regulations throughout the early 1920s. Readers learned
not only her name and where she was from, but also that Rosine was
a novelist, thirty-nine years of age. Several accounts of her arrest,
at least four of which were in New York newspapers, quoted and paraphrased
her opinions at length.
the early 1920s such accounts originated from all parts of the United
States. It is significant that these stories were considered newsworthy
even when, as in this case, they came from what was then merely
a remote U.S. territory. It is also telling that, by the end of
the decade, bathing costume standards were no longer of such interest.
In fact, photographs indicate that, by 1930, bathing costumes that
were once permitted primarily in western resort areas were worn
regularly, even in formerly censorious regions of the country.
declining concern over modesty in swimwear undoubtedly resulted
from multiple factors. Mass media surely influenced national standards
of decency by drawing attention to the variety of ways these issues
were handled throughout the country, thus creating a reference point
by which to gauge and modify the idiosyncrasies of local norms.
mass production of photographic images, both in print and in movies,
popularized fashions that might otherwise not have been as quickly
introduced or accepted in certain regions. Over time, the effect
of such publicity was inevitably to promote greater uniformity of
modesty norms and consequently to increase tolerance for styles
that, although initially thought to be offensive, were eventually
accepted as a matter of course.
was in the early 1920s, however, that the erosion of Victorian-era
standards of conduct for women was most conspicuous. Less voluminous
styles in bathing costumes represented, for the average woman at
least, the farthest possible remove from a tenacious value system
that both literally and figuratively would cloak her body and check
her movements. As such, these styles were most vehemently opposed
by those who would have retained such a value system. Abbreviated
bathing costumes were so clearly justifiable from a purely pragmatic
standpoint though that proponents of practical swimwear were just
as prone to be vociferous. Thus, attempts to control morality by
enforcing strict bathing dress codes and attempts to exert autonomy
by resisting such codes were often equally emphatic.14
based ostensibly on concern for a woman's autonomy or for her financial,
moral, or physical well-being, specific arguments against fashionable
displays by women of the 1920s seemed, as often as not, to have
been ultimately little more than red herrings. Although in many
ways women were being encouraged, if not actually thrust, into the
difficult work of self-discovery, they were thwarted in this process
at a most fundamental level; even the clothes they selected were
still clearly in the public domain.
and conflicting messages about who they should be. On one
hand, self-assertion and autonomy were valorized. On the other
hand, women were told that they were still very much under orders
to obey. Moralists, fashion and health experts, family members,
and even those who otherwise staunchly defended women's equality
and independence all wanted to control women's choices in clothing.
The controversies that raged about women's fashions throughout
the 1920s do indeed mark this era as a particularly important
one in which to assess the interplay between conflicting social
and ideological agendas as inscribed on the bodies of women.
Richard Martin and Harold Koda, Splash! A History of Swimwear
(New York: Rizzoli, 1990). 43.
13. Latham, 81.
14. Latham, 82.