Raising Sand: When Knees Were News

Memorial Day was the unofficial beginning of summer. And summer is swimsuit season. So, slather your mouse with SPF 50, and let’s backstroke through some old issues of Fort Worth newspapers to discover that a century ago:

1. The term for swimwear was more likely to be bathing suit than swimsuit.

2. Bathing suits were at the epicenter of seismic shifts taking place in culture around the world.

3. Unlike today, a “one-piece” was daring, and a “two-piece” was modest.

In the late nineteenth century the bathing suit was so modest as to be claustrophobic, as this 1899 Register spread shows.

By 1904, this Telegram photo spread shows, bathing suits were still blousy and skirted, covering the body from neck to knees.

But gradually women began to shake off the shackling skirts of oppression. Not, however, without making headlines, as this 1908 Telegram clip shows.

By 1921, as this local retail ad shows, bathing suits were still skirted—and allwool.

But by 1922, from Paris, France, to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Lake Worth, fingers were wagging, lips were pursing, eyebrows were reaching for the sky. Women had clearly gone insane.

Perhaps after prohibition began in 1920 women had begun to nip more at the Lydia Pinkham (patent medicine for women, 18 percent alcohol). Anyway, suddenly, it seemed, women were getting into all kinds of mischief: smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol in speakeasies, operating motor vehicles, listening to jazz, makin’ whoopee, working outside the home, riding bicycles in a most unsidesaddled orientation. Could anything be done to save civilization?

And nothing was more symbolic of the changing world than swimwear. For decades the two-piece bathing suit had been the standard of modesty. Whereas today the term two-piece might refer to a bikini, providing less modesty than a one-piece, a century ago a two-piece was essentially a leotard covering the torso from neck to hips and a skirt covering the thighs.

Then sashaying along the beach came the one-piece: just the leotard without a skirt to keep a proper lady’s thighs from blushing. Calamity, Jane! In some locales the one-piece was outlawed. Women were required by law to wear a two-piece: leotard and skirt. And sometimes police—the long leg of the law—actually determined the legal standing of a bathing suit by measuring the length of its skirt.

But the daring young women continued to unskirt and to wade on, boldly going where no sunburn had gone before. By 1922 the one-piece bathing suit was evolving to resemble the one-piece we recognize today.

Austin of 1918 provides perhaps the best example of how our culture’s view of swimwear has changed. Hard to believe that ninety-four years ago the future home of clothing-optional Hippie Hollow required—holy androgyny, Bathman!—even men to have a skirt on their bathing suit.

And what might those daring women (and men) of the 1920s think of today’s strings and thongs and Speedos? It all might be enough to send them straight to the Lydia Pinkham.

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