Published: July 14, 2020
As the summer kicks into swing, the great outdoors calls like never before. Don your bathing suit as you lounge in the sun and your worries fall away. Let your mind wander back in time to the turn of the century when ideas of leisure began to change life as we know it, trailblazing paths to our shores and, inevitably, our sense of fashion. The Charleston Museum launches a new exhibition in its Historic Textiles Gallery titled “Shapes of Summer: Historic Bathing Suits,” exploring the evolving fashion throughout the late Nineteenth and Twentieth Century. We sat down with Virginia Theerman, the museum’s newly minted curator of historic textiles, to get our dose of vitamin C.
Congratulations on your new position at the museum, what areas are you looking forward to exploring in the Historic Textiles Gallery?
Thank you! I am thrilled to be here, working with such a collaborative team of colleagues. Since I just started at the museum in April, this exhibition could not have come to life without the guidance of our chief of collections and archivist, Jennifer McCormick, as well as the assistance of Historic Textiles curator emerita, Jan Hiester. The Historic Textiles Gallery is a dream come true for a fashion historian, and I’m excited to use it to tell stories about the intersections of fashion, art, history and design in Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry. The collection is incredibly rich, with beautiful examples of garments and textiles from local artisans as well as internationally recognized designers.
Everyone is itching to get outside right now. Has the exhibition taken on a new context amid the pandemic?
This is the question of the summer! As a new resident of Charleston, it’s been interesting to see how different communities are navigating the pandemic and answering the question of who should have access to the local beaches. It’s a fraught decision, with evolving ideas on public health policy and also the fact that beaches provide a reprieve from feeling trapped in our homes. Hopefully the exhibition provides visitors with a little moment of summer fun in a very strange season where we’ve been disconnected from our normal holiday routines.
Where do we start and end with the exhibition?
The exhibition is a chronological presentation, starting in the 1890s with a wool bathing dress and bloomers, and ending with a 1970s stretch spandex one piece. We also have some accessories that date to the early 2000s.
How did the idea of leisure affect swimwear?
Leisure has always been intricately linked to fashion and textiles and, of course, concepts of labor. Oceanside amusement parks like Coney Island, which opened in 1895, were developed to accommodate the changing desires of a rising working and middle class that now had free time and a little money to spend following labor reforms. Different practices for beach garments can be traced back to ancient times due to the practicalities of interacting with sand and water, but dress for relaxation has always been differentiated. The pandemic has emphasized this connection doubly, as we redefine what it might look like to dress for remote work if we don’t leave our homes as often, and have to pursue leisure in those same spaces.
What’s the range of material on offer? Is it just bathing suits?
The exhibition includes bathing suits, cover ups, shoes, sun hats, bathing caps, historic photography from our archives, and items from our history collection, including a picnic basket and a fishing pole to contextualize the leisure activities of summer at the beach.
How did the silhouette of women’s bathing suits change over time? What were the key moments?
Bathing suits occupy a space between the silhouettes of historic underwear and outerwear, much as they do today, and they also track with concepts of modesty and the fashionable body. In the 1890s, women’s bathing dresses with narrow waists and full skirts often included matching bloomers, and were made out of dark, thick wool. Wool was not only considered a sanitary fiber for exercise, but it would not cling to the body or become transparent when wet. As the turn of the century progressed into the 1920s, fashion trends towards a slimmer, straighter silhouette, more like the one piece suits of today. Then in 1946, the “atome” designed by Jacques Heim and the “bikini” by Louis Réard brought two piece midriff-baring swimsuits to the market, though they won’t truly be widespread in the United States until the late 50s and early 60s.
Were there any central figures who played a role in swimwear and the act of spending leisure time at the beach?
Film stars and competitive swimmers like Annette Kellerman and Johnny Weismuller make swimming a fashionable activity in the early Twentieth Century. Museum visitors might be more familiar with Esther Williams, who was known as “Hollywood’s Mermaid” for her midcentury films with their complex synchronized swimming sequences. Companies like Jantzen, Cole of California and Hang Ten also do their fair share of promotion of swimming as both a sport and a leisure activity. Jantzen even sponsored “Learn to Swim” weeks in the 1940s and 50s to promote water safety.
What’s your favorite thing in the exhibition?
Two of the children’s playsuits on display have elephants on them – one applique, one embroidered. It’s completely unrelated to the exhibition or the topic at hand, but I find it to be a delightful moment of kismet to have these two small elephants at different points in the show.
At what points did materials change? Did that influence the style of bathing suits?
Bathing suits are primarily made of wool from the 1890s to the 1930s, but Lastex, a rubber wrapped yarn, was introduced in 1931. With new synthetic fibers being created in the 1920s and 30s, swimsuits started to have stretch enhanced by the material, rather than just the physical construction of the knitted textile. This allows for the form-fitting maillot suits of the 1930s and 40s. Improved post World War II synthetic fiber technology eventually leads to bathing suits in the materials we know today, like lycra and spandex.
What about menswear? Where do we see shifts there?
Menswear tracks with trends of modesty too, though the male body has often been more liberated than the female form. In the 1890s men’s bathing costumes typically consisted of a long tunic that was cut close to the body over knee length pants, though they could also be one piece suits much like a wrestler’s singlet. Over time, men lose the shirts, and by the 1920s close cropped swim trunks dominate men’s swimwear. Though the style lines will change, this basic silhouette holds on for a long time. Then in the 1960s and 70s surfing emerged as a prominent American sport, and board shorts are designed to be longer and fuller in order to prevent chafing. Today we see evolved examples of all of these styles around, between speedos, board shorts, rash guards and wetsuits.
What sort of Charleston-specific themes run throughout the exhibition?
All of the photography in the exhibition comes from our archives, which holds an extensive collection of Charleston images from all periods. There are some wonderful photos of July 4th gatherings at Folly Beach in the 1920s and 30s, as well as families enjoying their time on the sand and in the water. We also have woven straw hats dating back to the 1890s, which ties into local traditions of weaving and basket making.
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