August 31, 2012
As Labor Day approaches and summer sadly draws to a close, Threaded’s Swimsuit Series nears its end. But before we pack up our beach towels and boogie boards, let’s take a dip (I know, I know!) into the Smithsonian’s assorted collections.
Ads, old photos, and even swimsuit competitions can trace the history of bathing suits. But so can depictions of bathing suits in art. In fact, as I mentioned in the first Swimsuit Series post, it was a mosaic found in a cave that first showed women donning bathing suit-like garments in the fourth century A.D.
From the Smithsonian’s vast offerings, we can learn about bathing suit styles and trends by the way they’ve been represented in paintings, drawings, prints, etchings and sculptures. And, in the process, the lives these artists’ led. In the sixth part of this series (links to the other posts can be found below), we’re showcasing works of ladies in wading.
This wood engraving on paper depicts the supine wife of Howard Cook, who is likely wearing a wool swimsuit along with her bathing cap. The Smithsonian provides a biography of Cook, including how he made the move to New York from New Mexico after he received a whopping $500 scholarship to attend the Art Students League. In its collection, the Smithsonian also held onto a letter from Howard and his wife, artist Barbara Latham, to their friends, the painters John Taylor and Andrée Ruellan, dated 1976, a casual, handwritten note that offers a peek into his everyday life.
Does the red sweatband on this carved wood figure indicate that this suited, curvacious gal was, in fact, representing the ’70s? In contrast to Farrah Fawcett and her red suit, the modest bathing suit style and matching beach shoes suggest otherwise.
The painter behind this watercolor portrait of yet another red-suited woman, William Johnson had a long career that ended sadly, but it could have been worse. In fact, there’s a chance that we may never have seen his work at all. Luckily, it was salvaged by friends and acquired by the Smithsonian:
Johnson spent his last twenty-three years in a state hospital on Long Island. By the time of his death in 1970, he had slipped into obscurity. After his death, his entire life’s work was almost disposed of to save storage fees, but it was rescued by friends at the last moment. Over a thousand paintings by Johnson are now part of the collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum.
This John Wesley in not the 18th century Church of England cleric and founder of the Methodist church that Google may want you to believe. Instead, he’s a Pop painter with surrealist leanings, which, from this undated serigraph of a sleeping/floating/dreaming bikini-clad, heel-wearing figure levitating over a series of rhinos, rings true.
This lithograph, bosomy broads and all, reminds me of family vacations to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Sitting on a shmatte, as my grandmother referred to our old-comforter-turned-beach-blanket, or shirking the sun under the umbrella, every summer of my childhood, my grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins would gather together on the sand, amidst the smells of french fries, suntan lotion and the ocean, all the while immersed in our own worlds. Sand shovels, straw hats, a cooler of sandwiches, and beach reading included.
As distressingly mysterious as this painting is (especially with Hurricane Isaac and the seventh anniversary of Katrina on our minds) so too is the story of Ellis Ruley’s life, as recounted in a 1996 New York Times article:
So for the most part, Mr. Ruley’s work went unnoticed during his lifetime. If he sold a painting, it was for $15. Mysteries mounted, however, when he died in 1959. He was found outside, a victim of exposure but with a gash on his head that led his family to wonder if he had been murdered. Shortly after his death, the farmhouse burned to the ground; even before that the paintings had scattered.
What a treat it would be to walk into a gallery and see all of these works exhibited in the same place, red bathing suits and all. That just may be a project I’ll need to dive into.
August 8, 2012
A few years before Farrah Fawcett donned her red bathing suit, seven-time gold medalist Mark Spitz wore his stars and stripes Speedo to dramatic effect in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Tanned and toned in this photo, Spitz stands, arms akimbo, grinning and gilded with first-place medallions. If Fawcett was the 1970s manifestation of the All-American girl in her one-piece, Spitz was the male equivalent: virile and mustached, confident. (That ‘stache, incidentally, began as a form of rebellion against his swimming coach’s instructions and was going to be shaved off before the Olympics, but Spitz’s facial hair became such a part of his look that he always competed with what he referred to as his “good-luck piece.”)
While Speedos remain popular, competitive racing suits have evolved since the ’70s. They’ve become so technically advanced that the suits, and, in particular, Speedo’s full-body LZR Racer worn by the likes of Michael Phelps, were banned from competition in 2010. As Sarah Rich wrote on Design Decoded: “A suspicious number of record-breaking times were documented after competitors began wearing this gear, which includes drag-reducing polyurethane panels, buoyancy-enhancing material, and no seams—instead, the pieces are welded together ultrasonically.”
Before ultrasonic welding and mimicking sharkskin were part of the repertoire, what did U.S. swimmers of yore wear in the Olympics? Sure enough, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, has some answers!
Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku is famous as the father of surfing, but the Hawaiian athlete took his swimming ability to the Olympics, where he first won the gold in 1912 in Stockholm. Kahanamoku went on to win medals during the 1920 Games in Antwerp and 1924 Games in Paris and competed again in 1932 on the U.S. water polo team.
Kahanamoku set swimming records, rescued drowning fishermen, appeared in films and brought surfing to the world with international exhibitions; he eventually became sheriff of Honolulu (where he remained in office for almost 30 years).
In this portrait from 1915, he stands proudly on a beach in front of a surfboard inscribed with his name, wearing a fetching one-piece. (The suit is likely made of wool, the board solid koa wood.)
Then there’s Gertrude Ederle, 1924 gold and bronze medalist in swimming. Medals aside, she’s more well-known as the first woman to swim the English Channel. Annette Kellerman (who rather infamously wore one of the first skin-tight women’s one-piece bathing suits) attempted the 21-mile swim unsuccessfully on three occasions in 1905. But on August 6, 1926, Ederle set out at 7:08 a.m. and swam 14 hours 31 minutes to reach England’s Dover coast. With that time, she bested the five other Channel-crossing swimmers (all male) by an hour.
In this photograph, taken a year before crossing the Channel, we see Ederle standing on the beach holding an oar and some buoyant-looking contraption (Anyone know what it is?). Ederle’s wearing a suit emblazoned with what appears to be a chariot, and since her hair is done in 1920s-style pin curls, she certainly hadn’t just emerged from the water. (Not pictured here are the goggles she invented using leather and rubber, which are part of the Smithsonian’s collection.)
Also: Notice any similarities between her suit and the 2012 U.S. women’s swimming team suits?
Keeping with 1924 medalists, we turn to Johnny Weissmuller. He finished the 1924 and 1928 Olympics with five gold medals and one bronze and was heralded as one of the greatest swimmers of the first half of the 20th century.
Even then, the swimmers’ build was a ticket to advertising; Weissmuller traded his suit for briefs when he became a model for underwear company BVD. And then he traded his underwear for a loincloth when he scored the role of Tarzan. He was in six Tarzan movies before he went on to play Jungle Jim, start a swimming pool company, launch the Swimming Hall of Fame, start the failed tourist attraction Tarzan’s Jungle, have his golf cart captured by Cuban rebels, and find his face on the cover of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Seen here in this portrait of a portrait, Weissmuller perches jauntily on a drop cloth wearing a white suit, a similar style to Ederle’s and Kahanamoku’s, and well, to current Speedos, it appears. Holding his palette, the painter stands by his work and gazes not at the camera but at his apathetic subject.
And finally, Olympic swimmers Eleanor Holm and Helene Madison: Madison swam competitively for only five years, but in that time, she won three gold medals in the 1932 Games. Holm, standing beside her, competed in the 1928 and 1932 Olympics. She was en route to the 1936 Games when she was dismissed from the U.S. swimming team for a “champagne-drinking incident.” What does an international incident involving champagne look like? Apparently, Holm helped turn the boat taking the U.S. swimming team to the Berlin Olympics into a booze cruise; she had too much to drink, was reported to the team captain and got booted from the team. Devastated, she watched from the stands as her teammates competed. Despite the scandal, Holm was able to follow in fellow swimming medalist Weissmuller’s bare footsteps when she took her place on the silver screen as Tarzan’s love interest in the 1938 Tarzan’s Revenge.
In this photo, taken at the 1932 Summer Games, teammates Holm and Madison pose together on diving boards, wearing the basic aquatic one-piece and swim caps, toes pointed, waving to an unknown crowd. Not the suits typical of the day, they’re similar in cut to today’s competitive gear. Aquatic fashion, it seems, has stepped back from the flashy 1970s and ’80s to take its cues from the modest 1920s.
All this makes me wonder what it must be like to devote your entire youth to training, competing and winning, and then wake up one day realizing it’s time to figure out what to do with the rest of your life. Do you teach the world to surf? Portray a jungle denizen? Drink a little too much bubbly? Become a real estate mogul? Now that Michael Phelps has retired at age 27 as the most decorated Olympian in history, what’s next for him, besides collecting millions in oh-so-boring endorsements? Maybe he should bring back tradition and consider swinging from vines wearing nothing but a loin cloth.
July 17, 2012
Artist and author Leanne Shapton trained for the Olympic swimming trials as a teenager. Her newest book, Swimming Studies, which was released this month, is a quiet, weightless and elegant collection of stories about the life of a swimmer who is inescapably drawn to the water even after she is no longer rigorously competing. To continue Threaded’s Swimsuit Series, and with the Summer Olympics around the corner, I’ve excerpted part of her chapter “Bathing” along with some of the book’s images of Shapton’s swimsuits and their accompanying provenances.
Bathing implies having some contact with the ground while in the water—propulsion and speed are secondary. Bathing. Bathing: the word itself feels like a balm, a cleanse, rather than the wavy struggle of swimming. I wonder why swimming in North America feels different from swimming in Europe.
Until the late seventeenth century, the sea was regarded as a place of danger and death, the aspect of houses was directed inland, sailors were not taught to swim, in order to foster in them a true respect for the sea. The ocean stank, was dangerous, belched up seaweed and flotsam, and was full of marauding pirates and monsters. The value of any coastline was in proportion to how fortified it was. Swimming instruction as military drill for men and horses began in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in northern Europe, accompanying developments in toilets and indoor plumbing.
In The Springboard in the Pond: An Intimate History of the Swimming Pool, Thomas A. P. van Leeuwen talks about the impression physical activity made on European visitors to the United States in the 1890s: “Americans seem best to express their spiritual energy by moving their bodies, by running, walking fast, and competing in sports.”
I think of the only time my medals have come in handy, at the U.S. border crossing in Buffalo. As Jason and I pull up at the border after inching through a traffic jam from Toronto, a guard eyes us suspiciously and asks for our passports. We look a mess; the car reeks of B. O. and chicken nuggets. Vintage clothes are strewn across the backseat, moth-eaten blankets lumpily cover Jason’s camera equipment. One of my father’s art-college paintings is jammed between our luggage. I’m certain we’ll be pulled over to the side, as I often am, and interrogated. The guard gets out of his booth and asks me to pop the back. I do. Shuffling sounds, then: “Who’s the swimmer?” I smile at Jason. “I am.” The hatchback shuts quietly. The guard hands us our passports with no further questions, just “Drive safely.” Before I left my parents’ house I heaved a large tote bag into the car; in it were eight years’ worth of gold, silver, and bronze swimming medals.
While visiting Berlin, I meet an artist who swims every morning, so I ask him about the city’s pools. He quickly makes a list of those he likes in my notebook. His daily laps are done at Stadtbad Mitte, in Gartenstrasse.
I head first to Stadtbad Charlottenburg– Alte Halle, a small, pretty pool nestled in the leafy streets of western Berlin. I borrow a pair of children’s goggles from the lifeguard booth and swim short widths beside a thick red rope bisecting the pool. A labored mural of Hylas and the Nymphs overlooks the deep end. The pool is beautiful but feels heavily furnished, like a parlor. The other swimmers seem to be annoyed by my splashing.
Stadtbad Mitte, completed in 1930, is a soaring, gridded glass box. It is bright and unusually airy for a pool, thanks to its high mullioned transparent roof. (In 1945 its roof was struck by two Allied bombs—conceivably dropped by my grandfather or some friends of his—that failed to explode.) The deck is tiled in small pale gray squares; there are slurping gutters along the sides, two staircases that lead to a very shallow end, and a three-foot drop from the deck to the water’s surface that makes the pool feel contained, tanklike. There are only eight other swimmers, most doing relaxed but steady laps. In the deep end I sink to the bottom and look around. The swimmers glide calmly overhead, my bubbles rise, glittering. I push off the bottom.
In Bath, England, for a literary festival, I visit the ancient Roman baths. Usually, any ruin filled with algae- greened water thrills me, but as I walk through the boxy displays and past the projected re-creations of “Romans” wearing too much mascara, I am bored. Even the two-thousand-year-old skeleton with cavities from eating honey does nothing for me. The statues the Victorians erected around the terrace overlooking the large outdoor pool upstage the real Roman stonework, the bath’s cruder but authentic roots. What I love, however, are the Roman curse tablets: tiny outrages scratched into pieces of lead and pewter and nailed to the wall, requesting that the gods visit misfortune on the heads of whoever stole their stuff while they were swimming. One reads:
To Minerva the goddess of Sulis I have given the thief who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether slave or free, whether man or woman. He is not to buy back this gift unless with his own blood.
I could relate, remembering the time my coral-pink Club Monaco sweatshirt was stolen from the Clarkson pool women’s locker room when I was thirteen. One minute I belonged to The Club of Monaco. Then suddenly I didn’t. My father was furious at the theft; on the chilly drive home his incredulity at my trust in other children vibrated in the car. I cursed the girl who had taken it.
Bathing chapter excerpted from Swimming Studies, copyright 2012 by Leanne Shapton, courtesy Blue Rider Press. Images: Michael Schmelling
July 5, 2012
It’s widely regarded that on this day 66 years ago, the bikini was first introduced to the public by French engineer Louis Réard at the Piscine Molitor swimming pool complex in Paris. The two-piece was coined the “bikini” by Réard because he believed the new itty-bitty suit would wield the same explosive effect as recent atomic tests at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. And it did.
In planning the debut of his new swimsuit, Réard had trouble finding a professional model who would deign to wear the scandalously skimpy two-piece. So he turned to Micheline Bernardini, an exotic dancer at the Casino de Paris, who had no qualms about appearing nearly nude in public. As an allusion to the headlines that he knew his swimsuit would generate, he printed newspaper type across the suit that Bernardini modeled on July 5 at the Piscine Molitor. The bikini was a hit, especially among men, and Bernardini received some 50,000 fan letters.” — History.com
But I beg to differ that today is, in fact, the anniversary of the bikini. Yes, it’s true that Réard unveiled his skimpy two-piece on July 5, 1946. But as I detailed in a recent post on Threaded about the history of swimsuits, the first iteration of a bathing suit was depicted around the fourth century A.D. in an Italian mosaic at the Villa Roma de Casale in Sicily. Sicilian women appear to be exercising, lifting weights and tossing a ball, clad in nothing more than a two-piece . . . bikini?
June 28, 2012
Beauty resists definition. One might say it does so by definition: The subjective thing called beauty cannot be measured, quantified or otherwise objectively evaluated. Which isn’t to say we haven’t tried! Yes, the beauty pageant has been around a long time.
It was not long after Henry David Thoreau said that the “perception of beauty is a moral test” that his contemporary P.T. Barnum inaugurated the world’s first official beauty pageant, which was staged in 1854 and which was deemed so risqué that Barnum had to tone it down by asking women to submit daguerreotypes for judging instead of hosting a live show. From there, legend has it that the first “bathing beauty pageant” took place in the beach town of my youth, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where in the 1880s, the event was held as part of a summer festival to promote business. According to some digging done by Slate, although referenced frequently in literature and film, that tale may be a tall one.
The Miss America pageant was first held in 1921 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and presided over by a man dressed like King Neptune. Sixteen-year-old Margaret Gorman from Washington, D.C. took home the golden Little Mermaid trophy. And yet the beauty of this beauty pageant was secondary to commercial interests; as with many American cultural traditions, what became the Miss America pageant began as a promotional stunt, in this case promoting tourism in Atlantic City beyond the summer months.
Ever since, the bathing suit competition has remained an integral part—or, let’s face it—the integral part—of most beauty pageants. (Even after the talent categories were introduced, and the contestants started talking, which hasn’t always been successful: Remember the Miss Teen USA 2007 pageant?) Here’s a more interesting reel: a 1935 Texas pageant where the idea of beauty was so rigidly defined, in such a literal sense, that contestants tried to fit into wooden cutouts of the ideal female figure while in their bathing suits.
In the first segment in our series about bathing suits, we looked at the history. Today we see suits through the lens of the beauty pageant—the judging, the locale, the styles and requirements for entry—all of which can be seen in many items from the Smithsonian’s collections.
Such as this photo—
—on the back of which is written, by hand:
“You’ll never find me in this mob—but I was the only ‘judge’ in this beauty contest in Long Island, New York, it was my ‘first’ (in the 1920′s).” The judge was a young Alberto Vargas, a featured illustrator of busty beauties for Playboy.
Here we see an African-American beauty contest in Mississippi at the dawn of the civil rights era. The contestants are strutting their stuff, and Anderson shot the scene as you would at a national contest on TV—angled up, from the best runway seat—except the blacktop and chain-link fence belie the setting. An excerpt from the Oh Freedom! online exhibition reads:
In fact, many beauty pageants at that time, including Miss America, allowed only white women to compete. It was not until 1970 that the first African American contestant reached the national Miss America competition, two years after the Miss Black America Pageant had been inaugurated in protest.
Around that time, artist Malcah Zeldis addressed the racial coding of beauty pageants in this painting:
Zeldis, a youthful kibbutznik in Israel who came back to the United States and started painting satires of American riturals like national holidays, weddings, and of course, the Miss America pageant, contrasts the blond beauty celebrated at the center with the less blond, less white onlookers.
Even for Zeldis, there is a winner. Because it wouldn’t be a beauty pageant without a winner. And she wouldn’t be a winner without the tiara placed atop her head. One of those tiaras, from the 1951 Miss America pageant, made its way into the Smithsonian’s collection a few years ago. In this 2006 article from Smithsonian, Owen Edwards explains how and why it was acquired:
Then, 1951′s Miss America, Yolande Betbeze Fox, contacted the museum from her home in nearby Georgetown and offered not only her crown but also her scepter and Miss America sash. According to [National Museum of American History curator David] Shayt, the “perfectly delightful” Fox set no conditions for the display of her donations. “She just wanted the museum to have them,” he says.
Fox may have been the most unconventional Miss America ever. Born Yolande Betbeze in Mobile, Alabama, in 1930, she comes from Basque ancestry, and her dark, exotic looks were hardly typical of beauty contestants in the ’50s. But her magnetism, and a well-trained operatic voice, focused the judges’ attention.
Betbeze wore the fabled crown uneasily. In 1969, she recalled to the Washington Post that she had been too much of a nonconformist to do the bidding of the pageant’s sponsors. “There was nothing but trouble from the minute that crown touched my head,” she said. For one thing, she declined to sign the standard contract that committed winners to a series of promotional appearances. And one of her first acts was to inform the Catalina bathing suit company that she would not appear in a swimsuit in public unless she was going swimming. Spurned, Catalina broke with the Miss America Pageant and started Miss Universe.”
Quite a contrast to our stereotypes about these competitions. As with the evolution of bathing suits from shield-your-eyes modesty (More fabric! Less skin!) to boldly embracing the iconic All American Girl and her skimpier red one-piece suit (and then plastering it on your bedroom wall), bathing suits and their wearers have never stopped causing titillation. The discomfort and controversy back in the 1950s around Yolande Betbeze Fox’s Miss America win, based on her beauty among other things, and her subsequent refusal to wear her suit for promotional purposes (i.e., to be checked out some more) exemplifies the push-pull Americans have felt acknowledging sexuality, judging beauty and showing a little bit of skin.
Images: Smithsonian collections