To illustrate this point, let’s chronicle the evolution of America’s public undressing during the 1900s:
Women’s arms were exposed in the first decade. Though this may seem laughable to some in our day, this was a major shift in thought. Women’s arms and shoulders were usually covered in public. This change, however, was just the beginning. The controversy of body concealment versus body display raged on into the 1920s as legs and backs were progressively bared.
Cleavage appeared in the 1930s. In their headlong pursuit for more freedom and maximum exposure, swimwear designers jettisoned the overskirt which had been standard fare for most feminine swimming attire. Both men and women wanted to showcase their tan bodies, so the legal prohibitions which were designed to protect public modesty were regularly challenged and all but discarded. Public resistance barely whimpered, slid its clothes off, and joined the crowd.
A technological tour-de-force took place in the 1930s and 1940s, and a major shift in swimwear design followed. New fiber and fabrics allowed the body beneath to come out. These fabrics made it possible to expose more of the body’s curves. The body hidden underneath the bulky old suits of the past was now literally emerging into the light of day. A two-piece suit first appeared in 1935 on the pages of fashion magazines. This bared a few inches of flesh between its two parts. Though some wore this daring item, it would not really become fashionable until the 1940s.
During the 1940s and 1950s two-piece suits bared the midriff. Also popular was the maillot,61 which was designed with holes and openings to reveal midriff and sides. The maillot focused on the hips and became tighter. Once again, new fabrics made this possible. Elasticated knits accentuated the curves of the body in a way that was previously impossible. Now the body underneath could be amply exposed, emphasized, and exploited in breathtakingly skintight costumes, while its designers could declare that it was “covered.” The maillot inched ever lower on the bosom and crept higher on the leg. Most of the newest suits went strapless. Bared shoulders and skin-tight waistlines and bosoms filled the shoreline like high tide. During this period when swimming attire focused on the body’s curves, men with cameras focused on them too. Models smiled and bared themselves for the media, their bodies adorning virtually every kind of advertisement. Young sirens in bathing suits became a standard item for American merchandising which marketed everything from automobiles to political campaigns.
The navel was exposed in the 1960s and 1970s. Then in the 1970s high cuts revealed hips. Designers bared women’s thighs sometimes to the waist, which bedazzled the America public with yet another erogenous zone. This made the so-called “conservative” one-piece suit more erotic than ever. And with each new fashion season, the creators of swimwear shifted and manipulated the new fabrics to unveil yet another part of the body. Their garments virtually shouted at onlookers, “Look here! Now look there!”
And in the 1980s and 1990s even more radical expressions like thongs revealed breasts and buttocks. The designer’s intentions quite obviously were to disrobe and showcase parts of the human anatomy which had never before been “up for grabs” in public. Their constant eroticizing and de-eroticizing portions of the body and their perpetual search for the next erogenous zone to expose screams design.