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?

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.
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