Annette Kellerman's Unitard
In the oughts, swimming becomes a legitimate competitive sport for women, ultimately sanctioned by the 1912 Olympics. And sports, along with fashion, help usher in the series of shocks that popularize the one-piece swimsuits.
A microcosm of these early developments is a popular star of the time, Australian swimming champion Annette Kellerman. Beset with infantile paralysis, Kellerman begins swimming as a therapy in her native Australia. By 1906 she is touring London when asked to swim for the Royal Court. At the time women are expected to wear cumbersome dress and pantaloon combinations when swimming, but Kellerman is an advocate of free movement and ridicules the bathing dress as clumsy and even dangerous. She is advised she must have her legs covered so she improvises by stitching together a leotard and stockings and wears this with no skirt (AK0650). The following year she tours what is now a glass tank diving and swimming vaudeville act to New York.
In Boston she advances things a step further when she cuts the legs off her "all over bathing unitard" and goes swimming on a public beach (AK0750). She is arrested for indecent exposure, a firestorm of publicity erupts and the charges end up being dismissed. Young lasses are certainly baring their legs in French pinup postcards, but this is a family beach. For Ms. Kellerman, the arrest advances her career...and her cause--the ability to swim freely.
Hollywood is Kellerman's next stop, where she introduces her tight-fitting body suit to the movies (AK0915). Progressively smaller costumes follow in the early years of the next decade.
Bathing Dress Developments
What happens on the picture postcard and what happens on the real beach are different, because the exposures on the picture postcard lead the real beach by a decade or two.
On the real beach, fashion advances slowly but steadily. The bathing dress shortsleeved bloomered, complete with hose and shoes is still to be witnessed (BP0610, PC0920). But the bathing dress is loosing its bloomers, and the new silhouette is called a bathing dress shortsleeved bloomerless, although it is still worn with stockings (JS0810, HK0710-34BS).
In real life the bathing dress is not as corseted as a comic Gibson Girl, who is too busy looking to care about the wind flashing her hose and garters (PC0712). Absent bloomers, the hose are now in full play and provide an opportunity to draw attention to one's self. This more matronly white-dressed deliberately lifts her skirt to show a small triangle of bare leg above the top of her hose (PC0L76). Teasing the top of the hose can also be "accidental" (PC0640).
And then there are gals who elect to not wear hose at all, like this suspect (PC0880), and this soaking wet (SB0L10).
Maillot Pantaloon Cheesecake
On the postcards the models are increasing baring all of their arms, sometimes even exposing their armpits, and baring to various degree their knees, calves, ankles, and feet. Knees? Sure, but the whole leg is in action. Here's Asta Westergaard in a belted maillot pantaloon (GC0L246BS). This industry lass takes her shoes off (VG1L30_573). This one must have found a maillot pantaloon that unbuttons down the front... (VG1030).
One of the most enduring swimsuit images are several series published by K.V. i. B., of Germany which feature pairs and triplets of the scantily-clad bathing beauties frolicking at the shore (PC086S).
Follies and Spectacle
During the period between the turn of the century and the first world war a remarkable period of fashion ensued. Much of it would be lost following the great depression but when we look at many of these silhouettes and styles they appear strikingly familiar.
They have nothing to do with swimwear at this stage of history--their realm is the musical theater and the French postcard.
One of the themes is what we might call Arabesque, or Egyptian (TM0514), with a special emphasis on metal costumes (TM0510, BW0710, HC1010). Into this realm are the dances of Salome, the Siva Dance of Mata Hari, and other Orientalist influences (TM0512).
Another theme is the lavish stage spectacle, derivative of the Folies Bergère in Paris and including the Ziegfeld Follies in New York. These productions devote vast attention to costume and dance, and present a haltered, bare-bellied, and occasionally topless performance (GC0L1186). These costumes will inspire swimsuit designers for the next century!