Drowning in Culture: Gender, Swimming & Stereotypes

According to the CDC in 2016, drowning ranks fifth among leading causes of unintentional injury death for Americans. For those under age 29, it ranks within the top three. At the end of the 20th century, reports show that men drowned more frequently than women. In the early 1900s, however, the reverse held true.

Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. "Steamer ‘Gen. Slocum’ June 15, 1904 [above]; North Brothers Island, East River, N.Y. [below]."
Pages from scrapbook showing bodies washed ashore after the General Slocum sank. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Steamer ‘Gen. Slocum’ June 15, 1904 [above]; North Brothers Island, East River, N.Y. [below].” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1855.
In 1904, when a fire broke out on the steamboat General Slocum and the boat began to sink, witnesses watched women remain aboard the burning wreckage. Hundreds of women, fearing they would drown if they jumped overboard, “waited until the flames were upon them, until they felt their flesh blister, before they took the alternative of the river.”

Their fears proved valid. Nearly all of an estimated 978 women and children who boarded the cruise died. Most drowned just a few feet from shore in relatively shallow waters.

The New York Times opined, “one of the lessons which the General Slocum horror should bring home to every woman and girl in New York City is the desirability of knowing how to swim.” While catastrophes like this commanded national attention, thousands of accidental drowning deaths–mostly women and children– occurred in the US annually.

Why could so few women swim in the early 20th century?

Some physicians and conservatives concluded that women were biologically inferior or incapable of swimming. Common cultural stereotypes about masculinity and popular philosophies like Muscular Christianity  held that men were innately predisposed to athleticism. Many saw swimming–particularly open water swimming in cold rough waters–as a masculine sport, far too challenging for women. Gender stereotypes stressed that extreme physical exertion–like open water swimming–would permanently damage women’s constitutions, damage the uterus, and cause women to become “un-sexed.”

Frederick J. Garbit, M.D., “The Woman’s Medical Companion and Guide To Health.” The Josephine Long Wishart Collection: Mother, Home, and Heaven, Courtesy the College of Wooster Special Collections.
Frederick J. Garbit, M.D., “The Woman’s Medical Companion and Guide To Health.” The Josephine Long Wishart Collection: Mother, Home, and Heaven, Courtesy the College of Wooster Special Collections.

Others realized that women’s aversion to water and unfortunate tendency to drown had less to do with biological deficiency than it did with cultural customs. In the early 1900s, cultural beliefs required modesty of women. As a result, women’s swimsuits consisted of multiple layers: dark wool tights, knee-length bloomers, a blouse with balloon sleeves, a belt or sash, and full, voluminous skirt.

Louisa Dresel and two women in bathing suits at Mingo's Beach, Beverly, Mass., 1900. Image courtesy of Schlesinger Library.
Louisa Dresel and two women in bathing suits at Mingo’s Beach, Beverly, Mass., 1900. Image courtesy of Schlesinger Library.

The average woman’s swimsuit used seven to ten yards of thick fabric. Ironically, the fear of drowning in the swimsuit that etiquette demanded them to wear caused many women to avoid learning to swim. But women ventured to bath houses located along river banks and ocean beaches to cool themselves and allow their children to play in the water.

Margaret Wessell Piersol learning to swim, 1896, Courtesy Radcliffe College Archives, Schlesinger Library
Margaret Wessell Piersol, age five, learning to swim presumably with her mother, 1896, Courtesy Radcliffe College Archives, Schlesinger Library.

The swimsuits, though heavy and awkward when wet, permitted women to frolic in the surf. But if the tide came in quickly or current was strong, the full skirt often tangled around a woman’s legs, immobilizing her in the water.

Even if a woman knew how to swim, the weighted fabric often dragged her down. In summer, newspaper headlines recounted numerous deaths–mostly women–from drowning at beaches and lakes. Often women drowned while trying to save a child.

The deaths of nearly 1000 women in the General Slocum incident called attention to drowning as a public safety issue. Confronted with this threat, municipalities initiated “Learn to Swim” campaigns targeting women. Postcards, posters, and newspaper articles encouraged and warned women to learn to swim as a life-saving measure for themselves and–more importantly–for the nation’s children.

Postcard promoting swimming for girls and women, circa 1905. Personal collection.
Postcard promoting swimming for girls and women, circa 1905. Personal collection.

As cities began offering swimming instruction to women, individuals advocating for swimsuit reform–like Lucille Eaton Hill, Edwyn Sandys and Annette Kellerman–began finding audiences receptive.

Campaigns about public safety worked together with advertisements glamorizing swimming for women. They began to dismantle the stereotype that swimming was a masculine sport unsuitable for women.

Public safety advertisements successfully persuaded the general public that men and women could (and should) swim together on beaches because men could both safeguard women and teach them basic elements of swimming.

Such interaction of the sexes in a sport designated as masculine, like swimming, contradicted custom. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries middle-class propriety carefully delineated appropriate interactions between the sexes in most social settings–especially recreational sports. As historian Jeff Wiltse has shown, swimming pools were often segregated by gender and race, but open water swimming differed. The danger of drowning in the surf made mixed-gender swimming socially acceptable in the open water, despite the fact that swimming exposed more of the body than other sports.

Mixed-gender swim group in New York, August, 1906. By G. C. Hovey, Mid Manhattan Picture Collection, Library of Congress.

The early 20th-century “Learn to Swim” campaign succeeded. Mixed-gender amateur swim groups formed in most major US cities. Soon women began competing against men in open water marathons in the US and overseas. Women’s success contradicted cultural beliefs about women’s physical frailty.

But the early “Learn to Swim” campaigns that targeted women may have inadvertently contributed to another cultural stereotype–the belief that swimming constitutes a “white” activity.

Today, drowning captures media attention again. Now, the victims are predominantly nonwhites, not women. In 2008, the New York Times reported that nearly 6 out of 10 African-American and Hispanic children don’t know how to swim. In 2016, the CDC reported that African American children, aged 5 to 19, drown at rates 5.5 times higher than those of whites. Men now have higher drowning rates than women, perhaps due to cultural stereotypes of masculinity. Research links men’s more frequent drowning to an overestimation of skill and intoxication while swimming.

Reporting on the disproportionate drowning rates of blacks, the BBC asked: “Why don’t black Americans swim?” The question reinforces contemporary racial stereotypes about sports. Just as women’s higher rate of drowning in the early 20th century hinged on gendered beliefs, not biology, nonwhites drown at a higher rate today because of complicated social factors. These include lack of access to instruction, segregation that occurred at swimming pools post-WWII, racial stereotypes, and social expectation. As African American athletes gained media coverage for excelling in basketball and track in the mid-20th century, swimming grew less important in black recreational culture. However, we must remember, as Kevin Dawson’s research illustrates, people of African descent have historically displayed swimming skills superior to those whites.

Our cultural beliefs not only limit potential, defining what activities one should and should not pursue, they may be killing us. Examining the history of open water swimming, swimsuits, and advertising provides one way to reexamine our cultural myths and to debunk stereotypes we hold about gender and race.


Bodysuits & Boots: Early Swimsuits for Women

Long before bikinis were invented, American men and women sought relief from summer’s oppressive humidity by going to the beach. Today, you can simply slip into the Speedo of your choice, slather on the SFP and enjoy the waves. If you were a woman living a hundred years ago, dressing for a day at the beach wasn’t quite so simple.

Two sisters, Dorothea and Maryal Knox, wearing the typical swimming attire for women the early 20th century. They stand in the surf at Rye Beach, NY, ca.1900. Image courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Harvard University.
Two sisters, Dorothea and Maryal Knox, wearing the typical swimming attire for women the early 20th century. They stand in the surf at Rye Beach, NY, ca.1900. Image courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Harvard University.

Bathing suits at the time resembled gowns more than bikinis. In the early 1900s, women’s swimsuits consisted of multiple layers: dark wool tights, knee-length bloomers, a sailor-style blouse with balloon sleeves, a belt or sash, and full, billowing skirt. The average woman’s swimsuit used seven to ten yards of fabric, depending on the style. Swimming shoes or boots completed the ensemble.

Unlike today, the swimsuits women wore in the 19th and early 20th centuries weren’t widely manufactured and sold in stores. Some municipal pools rented nondescript gray swimming dresses that women could wear and return after dipping into the pool on days designated “ladies only.”

Page from Newcomb Endicott & Co. spring catalog, circa 1902. Courtesy of Peggy. Check out her wonderfully restored images of vintage knitting and sewing patterns.
Page from Newcomb Endicott & Co. spring catalog, ca.1902. Courtesy of Peggy. Check out her vintage knitting and sewing patterns.

But most women typically knitted or sewed their own swimsuits–and those of their family–which they sported at the beach. Popular fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar reported on the latest swimwear fashions and published trendy patterns. They recommended wool and flannel as the best choices as they believed those fabrics best insulated the body against cold water.

This early bathing suit permitted women to frolic in the surf with men in public while preserving their modesty and obeying social customs. Unlike public pools which segregated men from women by holding gender-specific swim times, on public beaches men and women swam together. In some cases, women learned the basic mechanics of swimming from interacting with men in the water.

Men and women swimming in the surf at Rockaway Beach, NY, 1900. Photo by Charles E. Bolles. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Men and women swimming in the surf at Rockaway Beach, NY, 1900. Photo by Charles E. Bolles. Courtesy Library of Congress.

But the women’s swimsuits made even dog-paddling quite difficult. The long voluminous skirts often became tangled around women’s legs in the water. Since the suits were made from such heavy, water-absorbing fabrics, even if a woman knew how to swim, the weighted fabric could drag her down or trap her in the undertow. Each week, newspaper headlines recounted numerous deaths–mostly of women–from drowning at beaches and lakes.

Is it any wonder? Can you imagine diving in a swimsuit that covered you neck to knee—in wool, no less, with a full skirt and sometimes a corset constricting your lungs?

Stereocard of woman diving in a standard swimsuit. J.S. Johnston ca.1892. Courtesy Library of Congress.

As reformers advocated the health benefits of moderate exercise for women in the early 1900s, some began to ask for swimsuit reform. As part of that movement, in 1903, Lucille Eaton Hill, director of physical training at Wellesley College, published a book, Athletic and Out-door Sports for Women. Like the home-exercise routines published by Fitness, Shape, or Women’s Health today, Hill’s book praised exercise for women and aimed to teach women proper form.

Instructional image from chapter, "Swimming," in Hill's book, Athletics and Out-door Sports for Women, 1903.
Instructional image from chapter, “Swimming,” in Hill’s book, Athletics and Out-door Sports for Women, 1903.

In the chapter “Swimming,” author Edwin Sandys* studied female swimmers, noting their inability to move freely in the water. In order to understand how women’s swimming costumes affected their range of movement, he put on a woman’s bathing suit and jumped into the water. He struggled and sank almost immediately.

Later, recounting his harrowing experience, he noted, “Not until then did I rightly understand what a serious matter a few feet of superfluous cloth might become in the water.” Sandys’ instructional chapter on swimming raised awareness about the hazards women’s swimsuits posed. That, coupled with the tragic drowning of hundreds of women and children in a shipwreck off the coast of New York in 1904, prompted many reformers to advocate for swimsuit reform and mandatory swim classes for women. Instead of layered dresses with ballooning skirts, tight waists and petticoats, reformers proposed that women wear a one-piece, loose-fitting garment, made of sturdy cloth like denim, in the water. It resembled a square sack with arm and leg holes which a woman wore over dark tights.

Jane Magrann, ca.1916, likely taken at Lakeland or Parkland, PA. Courtesy of her great grandson, Kevin Dawson, Ph.D.

A little more than a decade later, young women wore variations of that “modernized” swimsuit. Sixteen-year-old Jane Magrann boldly poses in a homemade variation of a modern swimsuit circa 1916. To contemporary viewers, Magrann’s swimsuit seems modest. Many sundresses reveal more today. At the time, however, wearing a swimsuit that fully exposed arms and bare knees (out of the water) was considered risqué. Public decency laws forbade women and men from lounging on the beach in swimsuits.  Police and beach censors arrested hundreds of men and women every year for violating ordinances–in some areas, through the 1940s!

So, when did women stop wearing bodysuits, homemade swimming dresses, and boots to the beach? How did form-fitting swimsuits become popular and widely accepted in mainstream America? Learn more about the young Australian woman who first revolutionized women’s swimwear and began to reshape cultural ideals here.

*Note: Edwin Sandys, the author of “Swimming,” is not Sir Edwin Sandys (1561-1629), of British Parliament.

The “Million Dollar Mermaid” Revolutionizes Women’s Swimwear

An Australian woman, Annette Kellerman, sparked the first major revolution in women’s swimwear in America. In some ways, the modern swimsuit—and her future stardom—grew from her early failure.

Champion swimmer Annette Kellerman, posing for a publicity photo in a union suit, in her native Australia, ca. 1905.
Champion swimmer Annette Kellerman, posing for a publicity photo in a swimsuit in her native Australia, ca. 1905. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1904, at age nineteen, already a national swim champion, Kellerman captured worldwide attention when she attempted to swim the English Channel. At the time, the public followed open water swimming as faithfully as many Americans follow baseball and football today. The English Channel swim stood as grueling test of physical and mental endurance. Most believed that only elite male athletes could withstand its freezing waters, swift tides, forceful currents, and unpredictable squalls. While many athletes had tried to swim from England to France, at that point, only one man, Matthew Webb, had completed the swim. It took him nearly 22 hours.

No one believed a woman could swim the English Channel. And Kellerman didn’t swim the distance.

Typical bathing suits for a family at the beach, ca.1910. Courtesy of Kym Pichon, personal collection.
Typical bathing suits for a family at the beach, ca.1910. Courtesy of Kym Pichon, personal collection.

But her ability to endure the bitterly cold saltwater for over nine hours, along with an entrepreneurial spirit, “plucky” attitude, and bold swimsuit, created a media sensation that forever changed swimsuits for women.

In the early 1900s, social custom in the US and England required women to wear dark, layered swimsuits with full, long skirts, tights, and shoes on the beach. Men, too, were expected to wear shirts over their trunks.

Following custom in Australia, Kellerman swam in a dark one-piece swimsuit that exposed her thighs. After her second Channel-swimming attempt in 1905, a royal English audience asked to meet the fearless swimmer. Preparing her for the meeting, officials asked Kellerman to wear her swimsuit but they instructed her to cover her legs, to heed English propriety. Instead of donning the customary long skirt, Kellerman ingeniously sewed the tops of black silk tights around the leg openings of her Australian swimsuit. The seam joining the union suit to the tights is visible at Kellerman’s mid-thigh.

Annette Kellerman posing in the swimsuit she invented, 1919. Image courtesy of the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress. Rights status not evaluated.

Her action mollified conservatives and generated a media buzz. Vaudeville theater owners in New York and Boston contracted her to do a swimming and diving performance. Kellerman transformed into a celebrity and the homemade one-piece bathing suit became her trademark. She wore the sleek black bodysuit, which the media christened the “Kellerman,” in all of her performances.

Many early vaudeville acts catered primarily to a male audience and contained burlesque overtones. Men flocked to watch the curvaceous Kellerman–tightly sheathed in silk–demonstrate a dive or swimming stroke in a large water-filled tank onstage. Her manager placed mirrors around the tank so viewers could behold her from every angle. An astute woman, Kellerman knew that her swimsuit and act titillated male viewers.

Australian swim champion, Annette Kellerman, ca. 1911. Image courtesy of the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.
Australian swim champion, Annette Kellerman, ca. 1911. Image courtesy of the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

But she understood that acceptance of her swimsuit–and essentially her career–hinged on endorsement by women with middle-class sensibilities. She legitimized her outfit. By demonstrating diving and swimming techniques, she kept her act educational, justifying her one-piece swimsuit as a uniform for a professional athlete.

Kellerman also promoted swimming—and the need for a proper swimsuit—as a public health issue.  In the early 20th century, thousands of accidental drowning deaths occurred in the US annually. Most fatalities involved women and children. The heavy woolen bathing suits women were expected to wear hampered movement greatly. Kellerman explained that her tight streamlined suit enhanced mobility in the water. Its lighter weight and lack of voluminous skirts decreased women’s risk of drowning. Even the most socially conservative could not against argue those pragmatic truths.

Kellerman displayed an entrepreneurial instinct and promoted swimming as a means of enhancing feminine beauty.

Ad for Kellerman's health and beauty book, The Body Beautiful," 1911.
Ad for Kellerman’s health and beauty book, The Body Beautiful,” 1911.


Ad for the silent film, Neptune's Daughter, showing Kellerman's measurements. Fitness experts of the time labeled Kellerman as "the perfect woman."
Poster for the silent film, Neptune’s Daughter, showing Kellerman’s measurements and proclaiming her “the perfect woman.”

Capitalizing on her expertise as a swimmer and popularity in theater and silent film, she authored a syndicated newspaper column, “How To Be Beautiful,” that praised swimming as a beautifying exercise for women.

By linking swimming with women’s health and beauty, Kellerman legitimized both the streamlined bathing suit and swimming as an appropriate exercise for women. She had attracted attention of physical fitness experts, like Harvard’s Dudley Sargent, who applauded her physique, labeling her “the Perfect Woman.”

Her reputation encouraged women to learn to swim and they eagerly sought Kellerman suits. Responding to the increasing demand for the one-piece swimsuits, other manufacturers began producing Kellerman knockoffs. Soon women could purchase the sleek bodysuit in department stores across America. Previously, they had to knit or sew their own swimsuits.

Today, history remembers Kellerman as a silent film star–a celebrity athlete who turned a career in sports into a lucrative acting career in Hollywood. Her life inspired the 1952 hit movie, Million Dollar Mermaid.

The Kellerman one-piece suit revolutionized women’s swimwear, but it still covered women’s legs. When did the legless swimsuit evolve? As open water swimming became a popular pastime and widely followed sport, women began swimming competitively and breaking swim records previously set by men. Women in the US swam their way to international fame in the 1910s and 1920s. The success of the modern one-piece swimsuit is tied to their stories.

More than a marathon (part 1)

In the mid 1920s, veteran sportswriters in America consistently reported on one sporting event as the quintessential challenge to athletic prowess, strength, and endurance. The sport that sparked unprecedented media-hype and front-page newspaper coverage in 1926 wasn’t the World Series but the English Channel swim.

Front pages of the LA Times, NYT, Chicago Daily Tribune, and Washington Post covering Ederle's record-breaking swim.
Front pages of the LA Times, New York Times, Chicago Daily Tribune, and Washington Post announcing Gertrude Ederle’s record-breaking swim of the English Channel on August 6, 1926.

When, on August 6, 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman in the world to complete the harrowing swim, the press created a national hero. Headlines of her triumph dominated the front pages of major American newspapers for days. Weeks later, millions of fans from across the country clogged streets of New York City to shower Ederle with over four hundred tons of confetti in the congratulatory parade which became New York’s largest ticker-tape parade to that date. The Nation listed her among Henry Ford and Clarence Darrow as the most important individuals of 1926.

New York City's parade celebrating Gertrude Ederle's Channel swim, August 27, 1926.
New York City’s parade celebrating Gertrude Ederle’s Channel swim, August 27, 1926. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Advertisers used images of Ederle and other English Channel swimmers to sell myriad products from cigarettes to wristwatches. Why did the American media provide so much coverage of marathon swim that occurred overseas?

Mild curiosity began after Matthew Webb became the first person to swim the Channel in 1875. Several attempted to replicate his feat but until 1926, all but five attempts resulted in failure. The press began covering Channel swims regularly because each swim tested athleticism in dual ways: athletes competed against one another and against nature whose unpredictable elements made for dramatic reporting. Sometimes weather forced swimmers postpone starting, allowing the press to build readers’ anticipation. Often swimmers set off to calm seas but sudden squalls caused ten-foot waves. Powerful tides forced athletes to swim extra miles, zigzagging eastward then westward and, in the early 20th century, tides often swept swimmers beyond jagged promontories lining the beach, preventing many from finishing within a mile of the coast.

Additional threats came from aquatic life lurking in the water. Serious swimmers followed the Channel Swimming Association rules (see part 2), leaving them vulnerable to repeated (sometimes disfiguring) jellyfish stings. Until the mid 1920s, most athletes swam without goggles; the constant exposure to salt water temporarily blinded many, like Peter McNally of Boston who attempted the swim in 1897. Not only did he endure saltwater blindness, his nasal passages swelled shut; unable to breathe he was hauled from the water. Prolonged immersion in salt water chafed the skin of many swimmers or caused them to bloat. Swimmers also risked hypothermia and delirium induced by physical and mental exhaustion. The media carefully reported (in surprising detail) on all of these challenges.

To Americans in the 1920s, the Channel swim became more than a marathon: it represented an almost impossible challenge, a new frontier to confront and conquer. The swim provided an opportunity to use scientific methods and theories to subdue nature. Coaches like Englishman “Bill” [Thomas William] Burgess—the second man to swim the Channel—charted the tides, carefully timing the swimmer’s start. Newspaper reporters fueled a cultural obsession with records, marathons, and the measurement of efficiency.

Most importantly, following WWI the swim became a place to wage ideological wars. As an international competition, it provided a virtual battlefield on which nations could wage athletic wars to demonstrate national superiority. In May 1923, the London Daily Sketch offered a £1000 (then roughly $5000) prize to the first person to swim across the strait (to date, only Englishmen had succeeded). The Sketch contest enticed many aspiring athletes from various nations including two swimmers from Massachusetts, Henry Sullivan and Charles Toth. Both working-class men (a shoemaker and waiter) succeeded under dramatic conditions.

After a decade of saving and training, Sullivan prevailed on his seventh attempt: 27 hours 25 minutes of continual swimming. His triumph after repeated failure reinforced a traditional American ideology that prized fortitude, determination, and self-reliance. Sullivan’s perseverance earned widespread media attention in America and England and advertisers used him for celebrity endorsements.

Advertisement issued by the National Milk Publicity Council,  The [London] Times, 1923.
Advertisement issued by the National Milk Publicity Council, The [London] Times, 1923.
Decades before the lucrative “Got Milk?” campaign created by the California Milk Processor Board, London’s National Milk Publicity Council, used (then) famous athletes in ads in The [London] Times to promote the near-magical health properties of milk. Sullivan’s ad urged: “Safeguard your health, maintain your strength, increase your stamina by taking plenty of fresh milk.”

The year Sullivan succeeded also witnessed the first American woman to attempt the marathon. The first woman (an Austrian noblewoman) attempted the Channel swim in 1900 but few believed that women possessed the physical or mental strength to endure the grueling swim. Following WWI, however, increasing numbers of women from several countries competed. Women confronted nature, other athletes and the gender stereotypes that society had constructed. The press heightened its descriptions of the swim as a contest for national hegemony. The substantive newspaper coverage devoted to women Channel swimmers stressed that the first woman to complete the swim would bring unheralded honor to her country. When Ederle succeeded in her second attempt, becoming the first woman in the world to swim the Chanel, she also surpassed all previous records set by men–by nearly two hours.

In a fevered patriotism, the media pointed first and foremost to her accomplishment as evidence of America’s complete supremacy. Ederle, too, emphasized American nationalism, remarking, “there were swimmers from all the nations, Russian, German, French, English, Egyptian and even Japanese, and I made my swim with the thought alone of bringing the honor to my country.”

The press transformed her into a national hero. She received congratulations from President Coolidge who dubbed her “America’s Best Girl.” When polled by the press in Chicago and Washington, DC, more women aspired be like Ederle than like Miss America.

Why has Ederle been all but forgotten by the mainstream American public today? (continued in part 2)

Her Swim Made Rolex Famous

Fog blanketed the shore when Mercedes Gleitze plunged into the stark obsidian water at Cape Gris Nez, France, before dawn, October 1927. The “Oyster”–a newly invented waterproof watch by Rolex–that she wore ticked with each stroke she took as she swam toward England.

Rolex advertisement, British House and Garden, October 2010.

A typist from London, Mercedes Gleitze captured newspaper headlines in America as one of a handful of women athletes vying to be the first woman to successful swim across the Channel.

American reporters became captivated by Gleitze, the “beautiful London stenographer” when she first attempted the swim in 1922. At the time, only a handful of men—the most seasoned and accomplished athletes—had successfully swum the strait. Most people believed that women lacked the physical strength and endurance to swim through the rough Channel waters. Reporters were fascinated by women athletes who attempted the swim and American sportswriters reported faithfully Gleitze’s attempts.

Mercedes Gleitze, publicity photo, ca.1926.
Mercedes Gleitze, publicity photo, ca.1926.

Gleitze possessed not only striking beauty but she embodied the determined and dedicated spirit that many believed defined “real” sport. Reporters continually emphasized her working-class roots and that she saved her money annually to embark on the swim. She failed in her attempts seven times over five years before finally succeeding.

American headlines captured the drama surrounding Gleitze’s swims. In 1926, after swimming 11 hours, Gleitze was nearly delirious from cold and repeated jellyfish stings. Her trainer, fearing she might drown from exhaustion, rowed out and “lassoed” her hand with a slipknot, hauling her aboard the boat, despite her protests.

Mercedes Gleitze American cigarette card.
Mercedes Gleitze, cigarette card.

Her “plucky” perseverance earned her a prominent place among respected American athletes and she was one of the handful of women athletes featured–for her athleticism–on collector’s cigarette cards.

On October 7, 1927, she became the third woman and the first Englishwoman to successfully swim the Channel unaided. Her post-season swim lasted fifteen hours and fifteen minutes and was splashed across the front front pages of major American newspapers the following day.

Front page of the Boston Daily Globe, October 8, 1927.


Though her October 7 swim was heralded as triumphant in America, some in Britain–especially those skeptical of women’s athleticism–doubted the validity of her swim. Noting that it occurred late in the season with few witnesses, the English Channel Swimming Association refused to recognize her swim as legitimate.

Undaunted by Association’s doubts, Gleitze vowed to vindicate her name by embarking on another swim. News of the upcoming “vindication swim” filled the newspapers across Europe and America for the week prior to event. Glietze, always smiling and spirited, won the hearts of the American public.

Mercedes Gleitze, swimming the English Channel, 1927. Courtesy Christie's.
Mercedes Gleitze, swimming the English Channel, 1927. Courtesy Christie’s.

As the media stirred up awareness and audiences awaited Gleitze’s swim, entrepreneur Hans Wilsdorf, a founder of Rolex watch company recognized a distinct opportunity. The previous summer, Rolex had launched its first waterproof wristwatch, the “Rolex Oyster.” At the time, Rolex was striving to prove itself as a reliable brand name. Wilsdorf realized that if Gleitze could be persuaded to wear a Rolex on her well-publicized “vindication swim,” the company would gain unprecedented media coverage–without directly advertising.

He provided Gleitze with a complimentary Rolex Oyster wristwatch which he asked her to wear during her late-October Channel swim and, if the watch withstood the swim, he asked her to write a testimony about its performance.

The first advertisement came informally. Watching as Gleitze was battered by churning waters for more than ten hours, a reporter noted that, “hanging ‘round her neck by a riband on this swim, Miss Gleitze carried a small gold watch which . . . kept good time throughout.”

The real promotion of Rolex began after the swim. Gleitze, sent a testimonial to Wilsdorf:

You will like to hear that the Rolex Oyster watch I carried on my Channel swim proved itself a reliable and accurate timekeeping companion even though it was subjected to complete immersion for hours in sea water at a temp of not more than 58 and often as low as 51. This is to say nothing about the sustained buffeting it must have received. . . . The newspaper man was astonished and I, of course, am delighted with it.

One month after her vindication swim, Rolex purchased the entire front page of the Daily Mail, filling it with an advertisement that featured Gleitze and Rolex together.

Front page of the Daily Mail, November 24, 1927, 1.

Recognizing the significance Gleitze played in Rolex’s development, the company recently designed ads featuring a model reenacting the legendary swim (see House and Garden ad above). The 2010 ad takes some liberties with the  swim that made Rolex famous. In real life, Gleitze wore the gold Oyster watch around her neck, not on her wrist as the ad depicts. Rolex’s recent ad downplayed the difficultly of the 1927 swim by picturing the swimmer as poised and pristine. In reality, Channel swimming is arduous, messy and wreaks havoc on the body. To help insulate against cold, swimmers covered themselves head-to-toe with “Channel grease” (a noxious-smelling mixture of lanolin and lard), their bodies grew swollen from multiple jellyfish stings, and most chafed and bloated from prolonged immersion in salt water. Knowing this, Rolex’s initial advertisement featuring Gleitze appeared a month after her vindication swim.

After conquering the English Channel, Gleitze continued to attempt to swim across dangerous straits around the world, including the Irish Channel, Hellespont, the Straits of Gibraltar (which she attempted six times before succeeding), the Dardanelles, and she became the first to swim from Cape Town to Robben Island and back. American newspapers highlighted that Gleitze donated much of the money she earned from swimming to charity, establishing the Mercedes Gleitze Homes for Destitute Men and Women.

Recently, Irish filmmaker Clare Delargy produced Mercedes: Spirit of a New Age (2013). The documentary, which features interviews with Gleitze’s daughter, Doloranda Pember, as well as some of Gleitze’s contemporaries, resurrects the story of this inspiring and indomitable swimmer.

Soup, Sex and Sports: Campbell’s Soup & Gendered Marketing

“M’m for giant hunger!” a pleasant female voice croons in Campbell’s latest commercials for Chunky soup. The 30-second spots feature Victor Cruz, wide receiver for the New York Giants, who is surprised on the sidelines by a large mascot (his mother and grandmother in disguise) bearing a bowl of Jammin’ Jerk Chicken Chunky soup. As Cruz obeys the maternal voice demanding that he eat the soup, we see mouth-watering close-ups of tender chicken and rice and hear the woman assert, “M’m for giant hunger!”–a play on Campbell’s iconic tagline: “M’m! M’m! Good!”

These latest commercials reinforce traditional notions of gender, showcasing as they do a hungry male football player–a symbol of masculinity–and a maternal figure providing nourishing food–a classic representation of femininity.

Campbell’s has historically targeted male and female consumers differently, in a manner which reinforces gender differences and appeals to both sexes. When selling to women as consumers, for instance, Campbell’s emphasizes women’s appearance and dietary concerns. Consider this ad:

Campbell’s soup ad, Look magazine 1971. Courtesy of Christine DeChaves, who discovered a cache of old magazines in her attic.

Reclining on the beach in bikini bottoms, the young woman’s shirt reading “M’m! M’m! Good!” carries multiple connotations. It refers to the iconic Campbell’s tagline. But, emblazoned across the chest of a recumbent, half-dressed young model, it also objectifies the woman’s body, implying that she exists to be sampled and savored like the soup. At the same time, seeing a long-legged model in a bathing suit, most women consumers are immediately reminded to be conscious of their own figures and food consumption. (And, of course, Campbell’s ads remind women that soup is slimming).

Campbell’s soup advertisement,1969.

In contrast, soup ads targeting men featured NFL players and other masculine athletes to emphasize that soup satisfies even the most manly man’s hearty appetite. 1960s and 1970s ads flirted with sex appeal and gender differences when selling soup; at the same time, Campbell’s market research revealed a “male meal dilemma.” Studies showed that men encountered difficulty finding “convenient, satisfying foods that taste good and that they feel good about eating.” Executives saw the newly developed Chunky–ready to serve from the can–as a viable solution.

Using the tagline, “The soup that eats like a meal,” Chunky ads targeted bachelors. In this typical mid-1980s commercial, the male medical interns are responsible for preparing their own meals. Women nurses appear briefly at the end, as bystanders impressed by the doctors whose consumption of Chunky soup make them alert and attractive, the ad implies.

By 2005, Campbell’s altered its marketing strategy, moving away from football and sports to feature men in occupations traditionally defined as masculine, such as construction work or ranching. A new campaign started in 2008 used ads that showed “everyday” men hard at work and sometimes alone with boys with a tagline: “A man’s got to eat. He just wants to eat better.”

The present Cruz commercial is a revival of what became known as Campbell’s “mama’s boy” campaign campaign: ads showing mothers or wives foisting soup on their grown, NFL-playing sons. Implying that women hold authority as nurturers, these ads reinforce notions of traditional gender roles.

Not only are the ads are blatantly gendered, but Campbell’s products themselves are gendered. The Healthy Request line, for instance, is marketed to health-conscious (or weight-conscious) women. Chunky, “the soup that eats like a meal” has traditionally targeted men as consumers. But, since recent market research shows that women typically purchase groceries, the most lucrative ads–like the “mama’s boy” campaign–incorporate women as supporting figures, even when the ads target men. And because research indicates that women purchase Chunky, too, Campbell’s has begun to place ads in women’s magazines.

Curiously, these Chunky soup ads directed toward women differ from the mainstream tv ads–they don’t include football players but emphasize that Chunky uses lean cuts of meat and a serving of vegetables. Why does Campbell’s feel compelled to advertise identical types of Chunky soup differently to men and to women?

The reinforcing of traditional ideas about masculine and feminine behavior troubles me, especially in these pre-election days. Does the revival of conventional and highly limiting ideas about gender in advertising–portraying women as caregivers and cooks and men as strong, active sports figures that need to be nourished–reflect or portend a trend towards social conservatism?

Half-Dressed or Half-Naked? The Paperboy’s Swim Through Sexually Charged Waters

If you haven’t yet seen Lee Daniels’s latest film, The Paperboy, you probably haven’t been able to avoid reviews describing the suspenseful thriller alternatively as “lurid,” “a hot mess” and “high-toned sexploitation.” AP movie critic Christy Lemire reviewed the complex, nuanced film as: “characters wallowing in bloody crimes and sloppy sex, all of which seems even more lurid during a steamy summer in the racially divided Florida swamps of the late 1960s.” (If you haven’t seen the movie, watch the trailer and judge for yourself.)

Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron, wearing “tighty whities” throughout much of The Paperboy (2012).

Whether praising the film or savaging it, reviewers generally shared one observation: they fixated on the fact that Zac Efron who plays Jack Jansen—the paperboy—appears half-naked—literally—through the majority of the movie. When not sporting tight swim trunks, he wears only underwear—“tighty-whities”—which are arguably more revealing in terms of style and color than swimming trunks, especially in 1969 the year the story unfolds.

Though perplexed that Efron appears half nude in the film, Lemire didn’t criticize it. How can she? Few have debated the aesthetic appeal of Efron’s body and I’m not about to do so.

What puzzles me—enough that I had to see the movie despite reviews describing its depravity—is that films have featured half-naked women—without logical, plot-related reasons—since Hollywood’s inception. If not overtly approved, the gratuitous inclusion of scantily clad young women is tacitly expected. So why did Zac Efron’s state of undress provoke such shock and widespread commentary?

Does Daniels’s decision to film Efron half-dressed (or half-naked) signal an increased sexualization of men’s bodies by the media today?

Not necessarily. Part of Efron’s half-nakedness derives from plot: his character Jack, a college swimming champion at the University of Florida, was expelled for draining the university pool in a drunken boyish prank. As the film starts the 20-year old is living at home delivering, the local newspaper produced by his father. Stuck in a pubescent, powerless role at home, motherless, girlfriend-less, attracted to an older woman (Nicole Kidman) his journalist brother (Matthew McConaughey) is assisting, Jack postures and pouts in his underwear–sometimes bored, sometimes rebellious–placing his body on perpetual display.

When Isoul Harris (Huffington Post) asked Daniels why he kept Efron “basically naked” throughout the movie, Daniels explained: “When I grew up, I was in my underwear all the time in my mother’s house. . . . so, with this coming-of-age story, I was replicating what I know from my childhood.”

Interesting. Indeed, at times, rather than sexualizing Jack (Efron), appearing half-dressed infantilizes him–some have remarked that tighty whities resemble diapers–and underscores his emotional vulnerability. Anita (Macy Gray), the Jansen’s omniscient housekeeper who narrates the film, emphasizes Jack’s childlike vulnerability by describing his attraction to Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) not as adolescent lust; she explains that Jack has fallen in love with Charlotte because Charlotte embodies “mother, girlfriend, and oversexed Barbie” all in one.

Whatever the rationale for Efron’s underwear-only home scenes, any sexuality that his state of undress might conjure is overshadowed by overt, graphic, raw and sometimes brutal sexual domination experienced (sometimes sought by) other characters.

Zac Efron starring as Jack Jansen, swimming in Lee Daniels’ film, The Paperboy, 2012.

Focusing on the film’s shocking nature, most reviews failed to mention the role that swimming holds in the film. Within the first few minutes Efron has plunged into a pool and begins swimming underwater; his short, tight black trunks, starkly contrast with the pool’s white tiles. The camera first pans from above; it then submerges in front of him, visually caressing him in exaggerated slow motion as he continually strokes underwater toward the camera. The scene isn’t merely to showcase Efron’s body—though it clearly does—its significance emerges near the film’s end.

About halfway through the film, while sunbathing together on the beach, Charlotte (Kidman) teases Jack—encouraging him to have sex with one of the nearby girls. Angered and possibly humiliated, Jack stalks to the water and swims furiously, beating murky waters with the frustration he feels for Charlotte (for his powerlessness in life). After suffering repeated jellyfish stings and barely dragging himself out of the water, Jack lies on the beach, in agony, swelling with allergic reaction to the stings. The controversial, much-publicized scene of Charlotte urinating on his face and body is contextualized in the film; far from an act of depravity or degradation—urine halts an allergic reaction to jellyfish stings—the act seems bizarrely natural. and devoid of sexual overtones.

So why did the media pounce on this scene and the fact the Efron appeared half-dressed (or half-naked) throughout The Paperboy? Are there differences in way in which Hollywood eroticizes men and women?

Movie poster advertising The Paperboy 2012. From collider.com

Consider the differences in the movie posters for The Paperboy (2012; set in 1969) and Bathing Beauty (1944). Advertisements for The Paperboy don’t feature a half-dressed Efron to lure viewers; the movie poster highlights four of the main characters. Knowing the amount of time that Efron appears in his underwear, the trailer actually downplays the prominence of his exposure.

In contrast, all of the posters advertising Bathing Beauty–including the one below–showcase Williams’ body. Originally titled “Mr. Co-ed,” Bathing Beauty revolved around Red Skelton. Filmmakers renamed the film to feature Williams and advertised the movie by prominently displaying her swimsuit-clad body in advertisements.

Poster advertising Esther Williams in Bathing Beauty, 1944. From retroconfidential


By featuring Efron half-naked, more than half the time, Daniels may have intended Efron to objectify his body. The media commented so ubiquitously on Efron’s near-nakedness because, historically, the appearance of scantily-clad men in popular film is driven by plot. Jack’s lounging in his briefs–for no overt, plot-driven reason–stands as an anomaly. As a culture, we are accustomed to equating scantily-dressed women with sexual objects. Efron is half-dressed, but he is not objectified—at least by characters in the film (two of whom objectify themselves).

Having read the reviews that describe the film’s shocking luridness, I cringed. Loathing gore and graphic violence I nearly skipped the film. Recently, after finishing Gilliam Flynn’s Gone Girl I read her first novel, Sharp Objects. Maybe that–gripping but highly disturbing–desensitized me. I walked away from The Paperboy thoughtful but not shaken. And definitely not disappointed or convinced that Efron was gratuitously objectified. I’m  curious to hear what other people thought.

Swimming for Social Change: Sarah Peck’s Birthday Swim

At 5:00 am on Saturday, September 22, 2012, when most Americans were still sleeping, writer and designer Sarah Peck climbed into a boat making its way to Alcatraz. Less than two hours later, Peck slipped into the frigid water and began swimming steadily from Alcatraz to San Francisco. An early morning swim in 55-degree water might seem like an unusual way to celebrate one’s 29th birthday. To make the event more memorable, Peck swam the distance wearing nothing but a swim cap. Why?

Sarah Peck swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco, September 2012. Photo from her blog, It Starts With.

She embarked on the swim to raise money for charity: water, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations.
Several major nonprofits sponsor marathon runs, walks, or swimming races to generate funds for charity. Swim Across America coordinates a swim across the San Francisco Bay to raise money and awareness for cancer research, prevention and treatment.

The difference is, most swimmers undertaking the 1.5 mile swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco for charity (or any reason) wear wetsuits—the water temperature in the Bay hovers around 55 degrees.

Why did Peck swim nude in frigid, murky water? To make a point. After learning that 800 million human beings on the planet don’t have access to clean water Peck committed herself to making a difference. She set a goal of raising $29,000 to bring safe water to others.

Sarah Peck’s pledge, August 1, 2012. Photo from It Starts With.

Peck publicized the idea on her blog, It Starts With, boldly asking readers to forgo a bottle of wine or a take-out meal to donate to the cause of clean water. She reasoned that if 1000 people donated $29, she’d reach her goal. “It will be freezing. I will be very, very cold. But a little cold and a little bay muck is nothing compared to the lives lived on other countries in this world.” She promised that if she raised $29,000, she would embark on the swim wearing nothing but her birthday suit. And she did it.

In a nation where clean, cold water–often enhanced with vitamins–is available at nearly every corner convenience store, it is difficult to imagine having to walk five miles for potable water as some individuals must. According to statistics from the World Health Organization, diseases associated with unsafe water and unhygienic living conditions caused by lack of clean water kill more people worldwide annually than all forms of violence–even war. Young children are especially vulnerable to diseases caused by unsafe water. Sarah Peck swam to help change that.

Mercedes Gleitze, swimming the English Channel, 1927. Courtesy Christie’s Images, ltd., London.

Though she may not have realized it, Peck is following in the footsteps of other extraordinary women from past decades who used a passion for swimming to raise money to help others in need. Mercedes Gleitze, an eighteen-year-old typist in London, became the first woman swimmer to attract front page headlines in American newspapers when she announced her intent to attempt to swim the English Channel in 1922 (more on Gleitze to follow in subsequent posts).

American journalists reported favorably on Gleitze as the “beautiful London stenographer” in the “scanty swimsuit” who saved her money and tried seven times over five years before successfully swimming the English Channel in 1927. Like Peck 80 years later, Gleitze dedicated the money she raised from swimming to improving living conditions for others. Gleitze, a fascinating woman, swam dangerous straits around the world, including the Irish Channel, Hellespont, the Straits of Gibraltar (which she attempted six times before succeeding), the Cook Straits of New Zealand and the Dardanelles to raise funds to help the destitute in London.

Though Gleitze earned celebrity status among her contemporaries, she’s been largely forgotten, even by historians, today. Maybe Sarah Peck, who followed Gleitze’s example of swimming to raise money to help others, will help change that.

Peck modestly acknowledged that her swim wouldn’t secure clean water for 800 million people. But her accomplishment of raising nearly $30,000 from over 400 people–in only three months–proves that working together, like-minded people can make a positive difference in the world. “Swim for it.”

Swimwear to Shape Bodies and Minds?

Retro swimsuit styles are resurfacing. Are past cultural attitudes about women being revived as well?

The 2013 line of Lisa Blue Swimwear modeled during the Mercedes Benz Swim Fashion Week, Miami Beach, 2012. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

At the Mercedes Benz Swim Fashion Week showcasing 2013 styles, Lisa Burke–designing for the Australian brand Lisa Blue–was one of several prominent designers who drew inspiration from patterns and styles of 1950s and 1960s.

The 2013 bathing suits resemble those worn by pinup girls of the past–with a twist. Some manufacturers are designing swimsuits from high-tech compression fabrics to shape and enhance “feminine silhouettes.” Curvallure, the latest line by the American brand Jantzen, utilizes Lycra® Beauty–a fabric engineered to provide the “newest evolution of shaping” in its full body control swimwear. Jantzen’s new shaping suits feature built-in push-up bras–to enhance cup sizes up to DD–and slimming panels to compress the rest of the body. Jantzen officials claim that new suits provide “what confident women of today want from their swimwear”–presumably more cleavage, flatter stomachs, smaller bums.

Aesthetically–as a fan of 1950s fashions–the revived swimsuit styles appeal to me. As a woman who loves to swim but feels increasing self-conscious of jiggling as she ages, the compressing suits intrigue me. But beneath intrigue lurks concern and mild uneasiness: Are these new slimming suits so different from the constrictive girdles of the past? Does the return to retro fashion reflect a revival of previous conservative attitudes about women’s place in society?

A global consumer swimwear study commissioned by INVISTA, a corporation whose brands cover products ranging from polymers and chemical intermediates to fibers and fabrics–like Lycra and Spandex–revealed that in addition to comfort and shaping performance, women want “more emotional satisfaction from their swimwear.”

Emotional satisfaction–from swimsuits? Really?

Purchasing swimwear from socially responsible companies might produce a feeling of satisfaction. Some swimsuit brands contribute financially to environmental protection: the Australian company, Lisa Blue, for instance, donates 25% of net profits to protecting dolphins and whales. Others promote their commitment to sustainability. The small Pennsylvania-based company Aqua Green manufactures fashionable “Eco Swim” bathing suits made from Repreve, a brand of high-quality yarn engineered from 100% recycled materials. Haute couture designer Linda Loudermilk created a luxury eco swimwear line made entirely from compostable material.

But the emphasis of mainstream, multi-million dollar corporations, like Jantzen, on designing swimsuits from technologically-engineered shaping material suggests that swimwear conglomerates equate women’s “emotional satisfaction” not with philanthropy but with body image. And not just any body image–but a slimmer version of the traditional bombshell idealized in the post-WWII era.

Consider this image featured in Jantzen’s 2013 new collection catalog.

Featured swimsuit from Jantzen’s 2013 collection.

The model, sporting Jantzen’s signature classic red, is positioned in paradise with erect palm fronds silhouetted against a background of sparkling blue seas. A breeze lifts her long blond hair as she caresses a classical statue with a near orgasmic look on her face. What is the underlying message here? That her ecstasy is induced from wearing the Jantzen swimsuit?

Historically, Jantzen commissioned artists to illustrate eye-catching advertising campaigns that visually associated its swimsuits with a desirable lifestyle and often featured women as centerpieces for visual consumption. Consider the similarities between Jantzen’s 2013 image and this ad of Jantzen’s Red Diving Girl, illustrated by C. Coles Phillips in 1921.

Jantzen advertisement illustrated by C. Coles Phillips, Life magazine, 1921.

Like the 2013 image, this ad situates a young woman in the foreground, with swimsuit hugging her slim but curvaceous figure. Jantzen’s trademarked Red Diving Girl presents herself to the viewer as she scans the horizon for something–or someone. In the background, among balustrades with lush plants that suggest tropical luxury, a swimsuit-clad man surveys the Diving Girl from behind. The text notes, “moments of relaxation between swims–yours, if you wear a Jantzen.”

While the 1921 ad notes the suit’s functionality as swimwear–“no loose skirts or ‘trappings’ to impede swimming”–the 2013 ads present the swimsuit as a means of showcasing the female body. The woman is posed passively and seductively–a sexual object. The video Jantzen uses to showcase its 2013 collection features closeups of a pouting blond’s mid section reminiscent of Sports Illustrated‘s swimsuit issue. What message does it send when swimwear companies eroticize women in swimsuits–especially when their customers are real women whose body types don’t resemble the model’s?

The media bombards us with images of super models who represent the ideal woman’s body. Most women can never attain that impossible ideal naturally. But starting with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue each February, magazines, network news and blogs feature strategies, new diets and exercise programs promising to tone muscle, shrink cellulite and help women to be “jiggle free” in their bathing suits. Americans face a very serious cultural problem of obesity but offer these articles emphasize not health but “looking sexy” in a swimsuit. Even websites like WebMD offer women–not men–tips on how to prepare physically and psychologically–for swimsuit season.

In our culture, the diet and beauty industries profit enormously from  reinforcing women’s physical insecurities. Each year advertisers promote new creams, pills, foods, and constricting shape wear to help women conform–literally–to an idealized vision of physical perfection. Advertisements create a hyper-awareness of women’s bodies prompting feelings of inadequacy and shame in those whose appearance deviates from the ideal.

From the start, Jantzen’s advertising campaigns for women’s swimwear underscored female sexuality and depicted an idealized lifestyle–one in which consumption of products produced happiness. The swimsuit looks attractive on the beautiful model and the model appears so joyous or sexy—that must somehow translate to the consumer. We expect this from advertising.

But such sexually-charged advertising coupled with the use of restrictive fabric to control women’s bodies is troubling as it correlates to larger issues of controlling women in our culture. In America, as the presidential election draws near, some politicians have uttered shocking remarks about women. In August, Missouri’s Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin uttered the now infamous line: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” In mid-September, when interviewing Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who may enter the gubernatorial race, the Chicago Sun-Times asked whether she could serve as governor and still raise her kids. Outraged by the sexist question, “Name it. Change it.” has launched a petition against the Sun-Times.

What does this have to do with new swimwear styles? On the surface, it may appear to have little connection. But in the past, fashion trends correlate directly to women’s social role. It prompts the question: does the return to retro fashions and prominent use of technology to shape women’s bodies reflect a deeper desire to control women culturally?

Can a Swimsuit Build Confidence in Men? The Long and Short of Styles (Part 1)

One sweltering July day in 1940, a group of young swimmers in South Boston staggered out of the surf. While lounging on the beach some lowered the swimsuit straps from their shoulders, rolling their tops to their waistlines to bask in sunshine.

Police promptly arrested them for indecent exposure. From 1910 through the 1920s, women’s swimwear altered drastically–from long full woolen dresses to tight one-piece suits–but conservatives reluctantly accepted the change and police frequently arrested young women for violating public decency laws (more on that to come).

Advertisement for men’s and women’s swimwear, Vogue, 1930.

But the swimmers arrested for being topless in 1940 were men. Surprised?

Today, we expect men to swim in some type of suit bottom–full trunks, fitted trunks, jammers, mini Speedo briefs, or high tech new compression suits (more on that to follow). Whatever the style of swimsuit, Americans accept that men will swim and sunbath topless. But, in the scope of history, our culture sanctioned shirtless swimming for men a relatively short time ago.

Los Angeles rescinded its ordinance against shirtless swimsuits in 1929 and the Vogue ad illustrates how men rolled the tops of one-piece suits to expose their backs and chests. But most US cities retained and enforced rules prohibiting men from being topless in public—even lying face down on the beach.

Pattern for men’s swimsuit, Utopia Yarn Book, circa 1910. Courtesy Peggy, Iva Rose Reproductions.

Initially in America, men–like women–wore heavy swimsuits made from wool or flannel—materials known to insulate from cold. Most women sewed or knitted swimsuits for themselves and their families from patterns published in magazines. A typical men’s swimsuit required six hanks of yarn–more than many  contemporary sweaters.

In 1913, members of the Portland (Oregon) Rowing Club complained to John A. Zehntbauer and Carl Jantzen, the owners of the Portland Knitting Company (PKC), that their homemade suits felt too heavy and fitted poorly. They inquired if PKC could create a snug and stretchy swimsuit–mimicking the one-piece suits worn by Olympians and serious competitive swimmers like Leo “Bud” Goodwin and Charlie M. Daniels.

Olympic medalists Leo “Bud” Goodwin and Charlie M. Daniels with E. J. Giannini, manager of New York Athletic Club, 1904. Section of photo by Jessie Tarbox Beals, courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

Both swimmers were legendary sports figures and heroes of the era. After the 1908 Games, Daniels held the highest number of Olympic medals won by an American in swimming until Mark Spitz in 1972. Young men idolized him and hoped to imitate him–if not in swimming, at least in style and confidence.

Zehntbauer and Jantzen developed a one-piece suit knitted with lighter-weight wool in a tight rib stitch that provided elasticity, allowing the suit mold to the body and conform to movement. The suits became popular locally–men reported swimming faster which bolstered confidence–so PKC expanded sales nationwide. In 1918, the company changed its name to Janzten and began manufacturing new form-fitting swimsuits for women as well.

Men continued to wear one-piece swimsuits throughout the 1920s. But Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller helped to forever alter styles of men’s swimwear and social norms in the 1930s. Following his Olympic career, Weissmuller starred with Esther Williams in Billy Rose’s Aquacade. In 1932 he began a long career starring as Tarzan in Hollywood films. He also became the celebrity endorser for B.V.D. swimwear.

Seen as an icon of masculine virility, Weissmuller was wildly popular with women who flocked to see his films and stare appreciatively at his muscular physique. Men, too, favored his films. The primitive and powerful masculinity Tarzan embodied reinforced traditional gender roles—reassuring to a society in flux.

B.V.D. featured Weismsuller in a series of advertisements for their new trunks with the tagline: “B.V.D. swimsuits… improve your stroke . . .and your morale!”  The trunks, called “Samoan briefs,” didn’t sell well instantly, perhaps because laws prohibited men from wearing the trunks in public.

Johnny Weissmuller posed with fellow actor, George O’Brien, circa 1935. Photo from Brian’s Drive in Theater.

But advertising research revealed that men wanted to copy Weissmuller’s style and swagger. The average man might never resemble him physically, but he could purchase a B.V.D. swimsuit and–ads insinuated–purchase a piece of confidence by boldly sporting the new style. Realizing that conservatives needed to be persuaded to accept the suit, B.V.D. ads underscored Weissmuller’s athleticism to help legitimize its new trunks. Ads stressed that trunks “were designed under the supervision of no less an expert than Johnny Weismuller. They have an exactness of fit and proportion that makes for speedy, effortless swimming.” As Weissmuller’s fame spread, so did cultural acceptance of the standalone trunks—especially in California.

Outside of Hollywood, men continued to be arrested for wearing shirtless suits on public beaches. In Boston, New York and Chicago, women often complained in editorials about the new shirtless trunks for men. Curiously, women weren’t affronted by male nudity but by the appearance of men’s bodies. Accustomed to seeing Johnny Weissmuller’s smooth, tanned chest and lean, muscular physique, women criticized that real men were “anything but handsome with their hairy spindle-shank legs” and chests.

When New York’s municipal beaches allowed shirtless bathing for the first time in 1936, the decision provoked heated protest from women’s groups who told reporters they “had no desire to gaze upon hairy chested men.”  As a culture, we tend to think of beauty standards as applying primarily to women, but as the protests vocalized by groups of women in cities across the US reveal, men are not exempt. And as the publicity photo of Weissmuller and O’Brien illustrates, Hollywood highlighted male physicality and sexuality. However, as a whole, cultural norms do not condition men to associate their self-worth with their appearance.

Steve at Conneaut Lake, PA, 1956.

Beauty pageants like Miss America and Hollywood’s bathing beauty films fused the cultural association between swimsuits and beauty for women by presenting women as docile objects to be admired or evaluated. Hollywood films like the Tarzan series, in contrast, subtly associated the exposure of men’s bodies with heroism, action, and masculine power.

This is not to say that men don’t suffer from insecurity about their bodies but to suggest that advertising and popular films historically used swimsuits to reinforce traditional gender roles. Bathing suit-clad women became passive pinups whereas men in swimming trunks symbolized strength. By the end of the 1940s, the American public embraced shirtless swimming for men. As a young man, my grandfather sported swim trunks at Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania, in 1956, reflecting a cultural norm. Even the playful pose–flexing his biceps–reflects a larger association between swimsuits and confident action for men.

To be continued.