Drowning in Fashion: Trash the Dress

Photograph from wikipedia commons, illustrating “Trash the Dress” trend.

Newlywed Maria Pantazopoulos wanted an unforgettable photograph of herself in her wedding dress. She posed, in full wedding attire, in the shallow waters of the Ouareau River in Canada. As she edged into the stream, water seeped into her dress weighing her down. The 30-year old drowned–in her bridal gown–just weeks after her wedding.

Humans are more buoyant in water. Fabric, however, increases in weight—exponentially—and the long billowing layers of dresses would cause even expert swimmers to struggle. This doesn’t stop trendy photographers from suggesting that brides be photographed in their gowns, in unusual settings like abandoned buildings and waterways.

The trend “Trash the Dress” reportedly started over a decade ago when wedding photographer John Michael Cooper persuaded clients to pose in their wedding dresses days or weeks after the traditional ceremony and reception shots. Mimicking the edgy, heroine-chic style of some fashion photographers who juxtaposed refined beauty and harsh reality, Cooper shoots newlywed brides in their expensive wedding dress in unexpected or offbeat locales–often at waterfronts. “Is This Any Way to Treat Vera Wang?” Caren Chesler queried facetiously in a 2007 New York Times article exploring the trend. The video of photographer Kadie Pangburn at work shooting a recent bride dressed in full regalia illustrates, the process.

In theory, any bride holds the right to save, repurpose or dispose of her gown however she sees fit. Yet, the trend “Trash the Dress” is flirting with danger. It also represents a disturbing mentality of a disposable culture with little knowledge of history.

A hundred years ago, custom dictated that women wear long heavy dresses to swim. These early bathing suits—made of wool, flannel, or sometimes taffeta—grew heavy in water. Full skirts hampered leg movement incapacitating even the most adept swimmers in the water.

Margaret Wessell Piersol learning to swim, 1896, Courtesy Radcliffe College Archives, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute.

At the time, drowning presented a serious threat to American women and children. In 1904, over 900 women lost their lives when the steamboat General Slocum caught fire and sank. Most women drowned in relatively shallow waters, close to shore. Summer after summer newspapers across the country continued to lament the tragic deaths of women who drowned.

Physical educators and swimmers fought long and hard for years to win public approval of shorter swimsuits that permitted women to move in the water. The National Women’s Life Saving League (NWLSL) formed in 1911 in New York. One of its four aims was to promote “simplicity and rationalism in bathing and swimming costumes.” To illustrate the danger of swimming in a full dress, the League staged a life-saving demonstration in which they tossed a fully-clothed mannequin into the water. Members of the NWLSL raced to swim to the mannequin to rescue it from drowning before the weight of the dress caused it to sink.

Perhaps if swimming were taken more seriously as a sport in America, and its history chronicled as thoroughly as baseball or football, women would understand–or at least be aware of–the very real dangers posed by plunging into a body of water wearing a dress.

It’s a tragedy that Pantazopoulos drowned in her wedding dress. Other women, however, are opting to wear gowns to go swimming.

Sample of new swimming dress designed by Shivan Bahtiya and Narresh Kukreja, 2012.

In July, swimsuit designers Shivan Bahtiya and Narresh Kukreja launched a line of haute couture swimwear that included colorful, glamorous swimming gowns, bikini tops with long flowing skirts, and more traditional styles. Priding themselves in Indian cultural ethos, designers offer women more modest swimming gowns cut from expensive and boldly colorful materials. I wonder what Annette Kellerman and the other women who fought so diligently for the right for women to wear short swimsuits in public would say?

About Marilyn Morgan

Hi, I’m Marilyn Morgan and welcome to my research blog. For over nine years I've worked as an archivist at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women at that Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and I am committed to inspiring, supporting, and disseminating academic research, especially related to women’s issues in popular culture. My own research investigates 20th-century and contemporary American history, popular culture, and material culture, especially advertising; consumerism; marketing to women; socially constructed gender roles; cultural aesthetics and beauty pageants; cosmetics; women and sport, media treatment of women athletes; youth culture; body image; dieting; gendering of sport; women’s swimming; eroticization of women athletes; and beach culture.
This entry was posted in bathing suit history, bathing suits, drowning, popular culture, swimming and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Drowning in Fashion: Trash the Dress

  1. Christine says:

    I realize this was not the point, m, but I just perused the Shivan Bahtiya and Narresh Kukreja swimwear lookbook and love it.

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