From May through September swimsuits abound in America. Throughout the rest of the year, women in bikinis are featured in advertisements to sell myriad products, many of which have little do with swimming. Why feature swimsuits in ads that sell soda? In part, scantily-clad women–who are thin and young, especially–attract attention. But in America, swimsuits are infused with cultural meaning.
Now iconic, pinups of bathing suit-clad movie stars and starlets posing poolside and other “cheesecake” shots abounded in the 1940s and 1950s. The film From Here to Eternity featured scenes—then considered mildly risqué—of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr intimately embraced in their swimsuits in the Hawaiian surf. Screening the film, censors reportedly demanded that Kerr’s swimsuit be skirted so she did not appear too provocative.
The 1950s saw a rise in bathing suits used in advertisements that had nothing to do with swimming. Advertisements for both Pepsi and Coke featured young women or couples in swimsuits. A 1950s Pepsi ad bears striking resemblance to the classic scene of Kerr and Lancaster on the beach.
The ad reads: “Aren’t today’s people wonderful? . . . They’re so wonderful to look at–these slender, handsome, active men and women of today.” Swimsuits still carried the connotation of health and activity, but appearance in a swimsuit was beginning to outweigh its association with the sport of swimming.
In the 1950s, as the ad illustrates, swimsuits began to symbolize freedom—from the constraint of clothes, from social responsibility, and from authority. Whatever tragedies occurred in the world, the young couple in the Pepsi ad lounged worry-free drinking “Pepsi, the Light Refreshment.” The man gazes admiringly at the woman who sits, eyes closed, luxuriating in the Pepsi she consumed, while he viewer is encouraged to visually consume her body. Notably, her body is positioned far more prominently, shielding the man.
In this way, the ad appealed to both men and women–men could ogle her body openly, presented, as it was, within the context of a healthy, wholesome lifestyle. Women could appreciate the style of the swimsuit and aspire to emulate the woman’s lean figure. And of course, who doesn’t want to feel as happy and carefree and wonderful as the imagined couple? The ad insinuates–without promising–that consuming Pepsi will lead to happiness. At the very least, the ad implies that merely purchasing the Pepsi product signals to others that one has style, taste and is at least trying to be wonderful.
Swimsuit manufacturers had—quite logically—featured Olympic swimmers and other well-known champion swimmers like Duke Kahanamoku, Annette Kellerman, Johnny Weissmeuller, and Esther Williams in advertisements for decades. Some advertisers used swimmers as celebrity endorsers of other products—from chocolate to cigarettes—as well. But typically, those ads featured swimmer’s well-recognized names and faces, not full-length body images—like the Lucky Strike ad. Olympic silver medalist in diving (1920) and swimming (1924) Helen Wainwright was recruited as a celebrity endorser for Lucky Strike cigarettes–even though she didn’t smoke (more on Wainwright later).
Bathing beauties were featured in a series of Mack Sennett’s films of the 1910s-1920s. Sennett had managed burlesque shows prior to making movies. The women in Sennett’s films wore bathing suits to titillate male viewers–they were presented as eye candy to be consumed. But Sennett’s bathing beauties appeared as glamorous and unattainable creatures–objects of fantasy. They were not confused with everyday reality–not typical women men might marry. At the time, the short, form fitting swimsuits worn by Sennett’s bathing beauties were considered inappropriate beach attire and weren’t produced for mass consumption.
Short, form-fitting swimsuits were mass-produced in the 1930s and had become socially acceptable. Hollywood movies featuring stars in bathing suits became popular in the mid-1930s thanks in part to Johnny Weissmuller’s long run as Tarzan, the Ape Man and, a decade later, a hybrid genre of bathing-suit/swimming films featuring Esther Williams. Starring Esther Williams, Bathing Beauty (1944) helped reshape the widespread public acceptability of bathing-suit clad women—for the mere sake of showing skin.
Swimming constitutes a fraction of the film’s plot yet posters advertising the film prominently featured Williams in a bathing suit. Mack Sennett’s bathing beauties bordered on risqué but Esther Williams was wholesome and young–traits that epitomize the ideal American woman. In the WWII era, cultural associations between the swimsuit, sex, passivity, and ornamental beauty heightened. And because sleek, short swimsuits for women were mass-produced and easily attained, the lines between fantasy pin-up girl and real, “ordinary” women blurred. This, combined with several factors soon to be explored, helped contribute to the feminization of swimming as a sport and firmly entrenched the swimsuit as a prop to evaluate women as sexual objects.