Feeling cold water envelope your body as the relentlessly hot sun beats down around you. Tasting sweet frosty ice cream before it drips off the cone. These simple summer activities appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds—from toddlers in city centers to octogenarians in suburban retirement homes.
In 1955, a photo spread in Vogue cleverly combined the two iconic and wholesome American summer pastimes to showcase Jantzen’s new line of women’s swimwear. According to the 2013 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Swim Week, modest-looking swimsuits reminiscent of this 1950s style are resurfacing. The swimsuit itself may be functional and aesthetically pleasing in a fashion sense. But what does the ad say about American culture?
Functioning on multiple levels, it sends mixed messages.
The woman’s pure white bathing suit and white straw hat suggest childlike innocence, as does the ice cream cone—a double scoop of vanilla and strawberry. Standing before the red and white stripes of the American flag, she strikes a compelling, patriotic image of “ideal” American womanhood: young, innocent but alluring, white, shapely, and passively awaiting fulfillment.
The woman’s stance sends an invitation, but not an obvious one: her legs are crossed demurely but her hips are thrust slightly forward. Her left hand gingerly holds an ice cream cone while her right arm wraps around her waist—both protectively and provocatively. Her smiling mouth is partially open in anticipation—not of the ice cream, necessarily, but of something just out of the viewer’s sight. The receptive tilt of her body suggests she’s waiting for a man–not just ice cream or cool water–to quench her heat.
Both the woman and the ice cream cone exist to be consumed. Just as the ice cream cone must be consumed quickly before melting, the woman—like all women—should be enjoyed quickly—before her youth melts away. But the woman in the ad represents more than disposable sexuality. Her white swimsuit, designer hair scarf, crisp hat, and crossed legs lend her an air of respectability. They suggest she is a wholesome girl-next-door-type that one weds and beds (though not necessarily in that order).
The juxtaposition of sultry and sweet, seductive and wholesome has deep roots in Jantzen’s advertising history and served to establish the company as a leading swimsuit manufacturer in its formative years. Ironically, season 4 of AMC’s Mad Men opened with Jantzen executives seeking help in selling the company’s wholesome one-piece swimsuits to women in the age of the itsy-bitsy bikini. In the situated “hyper-real” history offered by Mad Men—a show I follow avidly—Jantzen executives stress the company’s family orientation and desire to uphold Christian values by selling modest swimwear.
But in historical reality, Jantzen’s most successful advertisements insinuated that a smoldering sexuality lurked just beneath the modest surface of their respectable-looking suits. In the early 1920s Jantzen revolutionized women’s swimwear by mass-producing a sleek, short suit that resembled a man’s union suit. Short trunk bottoms encased women’s upper thighs but a long, form-fitting tank top skimmed the top of the thighs, covering the leg openings like a mini-dress.
In the early 1920s, when real-life women tried to wear these new suits on the beaches they encountered resistance. Most cities had very strict public ordinances about what was appropriate public exposure and violators were often arrested (more on that to follow).
So Jantzen faced the task of generating widespread public acceptance of the new sleek styles. Advertisers accomplished this feat by associating is swimsuits with happiness and a distinctly modern and desirable American lifestyle. Jantzen ads that appeared in Life and Vogue targeted young middle-class consumers, promising them a life (or at least a summer) filling with promise, happiness, and possibly romance–all from wearing a Jantzen brand swimsuit.
Featuring a young girl poised to dive, the ad asked, “isn’t it good to be alive?” The attractive rosy-cheeked diving girl confidently regards the viewer. Behind her, an exotic seaside sea-side scene unfolds. Beautiful white villas stretch along the shore and young people—wearing Jantzen swimsuits—frolic. Immediately behind the diving girl, a couple stands closely together, posed as if flirting. The man dangles a cigarette which then symbolized chic rebellion and glamor. The choice to light up could—especially in the movies—signify sexual prowess and power.
While ads subtly hinted at subtle sensual promises that wearing a Jantzen swimsuit could bring, text promoted the practicality and respectability of the suits. The names of three champion male swimmers are printed on the left side of the page of this 1921 ad, highlighting that athletes preferred Jantzen. The text in the ad explains:
Those who really enjoy water sports find Jantzen the logical bathing suit. Practical because it permits utmost freedom of action in the water. Beautiful because it fits perfectly and holds its shape permanently.
Verbally, the ads associated Jantzen swimsuits with serious athleticism and practicality. But visually, ads captivated the imagination by suggesting that Jantzen represented youth, freedom from responsibility, comfort, and an idyllic modern American lifestyle.
The visual message appealed to both men and women. Presenting young women as modest but modern, sexy but subdued, rebellious but patriotic, the ads captured the sentiments of confused young generation devastated by the unprecedented trauma wrought by World War I. Buying and wearing a Jantzen–the ads implied–young men and women could begin express their individuality. Because Jantzen’s Diving Girl’s sexuality is implied not overt, middle-class men could ogle her openly–she exists to be admired.
Wearing the sleek Jantzen suit, young women could begin to explore their sexuality in public while retain respectability. Some feared such youthful expressions of freedom would threaten traditional gender roles. But in the end, the Jantzen’s ingenious blend of sexy and sweet didn’t upset the existing social order in America. Instead it perpetuated the complex eroticization of women swimmers and reinforced traditional gender stereotypes.