A New Permissiveness Challenged
As the 1920s progress the emancipation of women continues, much to the chagrin of those who want to control their dress and behavior. Influenced by images from the theater, by cinema movie stars (such as Clara Bow), real women on real beaches must now battle to bare their arms and wear bathing suits without stockings. Toward the end of the decade the Hays Code will attempt to manage the content of movies. Men begin to shed the tops of their bathing suits, and new developments are introduced into the swimsuit.
The Maillot and its Skirt
Although the unskirted maillot pantaloon remains a pinup stable throughout the 1920s, it is the skirted maillot pantaloon which is increasingly adopted by Hollywood (ML2750)...and by mainstream bathers. As the pantaloons retract upwards the maillot pantaloon becomes a pure maillot tank; whereas the skirted maillot pantaloon becomes a skirted maillot. The former of these becomes the exception to the rule (CB2L40), while the more modest skirted maillot acquires mainstream status (CB2720, JC2750, JG2750). The maillot skirted silhouette will persist even into the 1940s and 1950s, often only as a front side sheath, although eventually that too will vanish, and again the pure maillot tank silhouette will be distilled out (fig. 3-5).
Tank Tops & Shorts or Maillot Tanks?
The Jazz Age also produces at least one apparent alternative to the maillot, and that is the tank top worn with shorts (VG0064_151, MR2510). Roland Barthes calls the combination a blouse and briefs, and in strict Bikini Science parlance a tank top is what one would structurally call a sleeveless, and the shorts are probably lined, if not worn with underwear, although they might well be pantaloons (CB28C0). The knit two-tones and solid combinations are a refreshing alternative to the more solid colors of the past (MD2650).
The scholar is cautioned to not let language get in the way of examining the period and the styling, what is important to understand is how this silhouette represents a radical approach to swimwear, a departure from the skirted maillot momentum. Precisely because it suggests a distinction between the top and bottom halves, the tank top and shorts silhouette provides an avenue to the deux-pièces, and eventually, the bikini.
We will return to the issue of whether the garment is actually a one piece sewn together but from two different materials, as well as the issues of separation.
Stage Costumes Theory
Swimwear evolution has always been driven from several directions and one of the most significant of these has been the influence of costumes worn in the theater and the movies. Virtually all swimsuit styles, from the leotard to the g-string, are worn in the theater long before they are worn on the beach.
The theater and the cinema are not a total presage of the swimsuit; erogenous zones are a function of place and utility as much as they are of the specific part of the body exposed. So what is seen by stagelight and projection is not always brought into full daylight, across the barrier of the stage and into full public view. At least not always immediately. The body leotard appears in burlesque 30 years before Annette Kellerman takes it public in 1909, and the g-string is a burlesque staple 85 years before it hits the beaches in southern France in early 1970s (some say 1972 is the exact date).
Thus venue is an important part of costume. Underwear is worn in a closed, private interior. Theater costumes are worn in a closed public interior. And swimwear is worn is an unclosed public exterior. All are not equal. The public exterior is further complicated by the venue, or boundary of the the exterior, but that is another discussion entirely.
Stage Costumes Practice
None the less, the state of affairs in the late 1920s is that burlesque, vaudeville, Broadway and cinema costume traditions are far more revealing than swimsuits seen on the beach (FD3010). 1920s costumes are rich, varied, with unusual "Postmodern" lines and support. Bralessness is popular, as is a general open-collared and open-armholed attitude toward nipple exposures that is sometimes reflected in beachwear.
The key distinction of the deux-pièces is the bare midriff, and bare midriffs in the theater predate the turn of the century. In the first decades of the 20th century theater costumes of the great dance reviews like the Folies Bergère in Paris and The Ziegfeld Follies in New York outrage the flapper era and exploit not only cleavage, bellage, and leggage, but see-through, toplessness (GP2610), and total nudity.
Hollywood and the European cinema also contributes to the outrageousness. Carol Lombard's criss-cross halter connects to her skirt and bares her belly (CL3010), and wild two-piece costumes that expose belly buttons (LB2810) are common in the pre-Hayes code cinema. Many of these exposures are coupled with provocative new dance styles that quickly migrate from Afro-Americans to white dance performers in New York and Hollywood (GG2650-52, CB2750). Much of this will change in the early 1930s. The Hays Code will forbid the exposure of the navel, ensuring that Alla Nazimova will not repeat wearing her harem bra and a low-slung, bare-naveled skirt (AZ191710) twenty years later.
New Maillot Treatments
Besides the standard workhorse: the maillot pantaloon and the maillot pantaloon skirted, other novelties also engage the maillot. One of these is the maillot lattice-side, with openwork that runs up the side of the swimsuit (VG0095_2663), or with a lacing with allows it to be threaded like a shoelace (OB2710).
Another is the single-should-strap maillot, worn here by Norma Shearer (NS2910) and Clara Bow (CB2910).
The Maillot Cutout & Bare Belly
Bare bellies might be part of dance reviews and the silver screen but they are not part of the swimsuit vocabulary. And so the rare exceptions are standouts. These brave souls mostly hail from Europe and are strictly posing for pinup media. Italian Isa Miranda holds an oar and wears what one might call a maillot haltered cutout (IM192510). English pinup Lilian Bond looks to be wearing what one might call a deux-pièces and is actually baring her belly on the beach (BL2L50).