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THE LORE OF THE SWIMSUIT VISIONS OF GLAMOUR, FASHION AND FARAWAY PLACES

THE SCENE IS all too familiar: One fitting room. One body. Two mirrors. And 10,000 swimsuits, none of which fit.

So goes the annual search for the perfect swimsuit.

This year, before emptying the refrigerator of all contents except celery sticks, consider this. The swimsuit -- despite the anxiety it may or may not cause its wearers -- has a remarkable history.

During the past century, the swimsuit has gone from a complete, head-to-toe body cover to a slim string of fabric. Fascinating, too, is that every year American swimwear manufacturers present new and different styles -- quite the challenge, really, considering that they are working with so little.

Unlike the days of Frankie and Annette, when everyone donned the same beach looks, "the key to success in today's swimwear industry is variety," said Larry Hunter, owner of Buffalo Beach House shops in Williamsville, Cheektowaga and Amherst.

"Companies have gotten to a point where they realize that not every woman is the same size and that not every size woman wants the same thing," he added. "Years ago women had a choice between tank or a crisscross-back suits. Today they can choose between a tank, crisscross, bandeau, T-back, racer's back, bikini and more -- in a variety of sizes and colors." This year's fluorescent-colored swimsuits, he noted, are in high demand.

The evolution of the bathing suit is interesting "because the places where you use swimsuits are defined nowadays as occasions for displaying the body . . . in a very heightened kind of way," said Toni Flores, professor of women's studies and American studies at Hobart and William Smith colleges in Geneva.

"I think this is why there might be particular interest as opposed
to, say, shoe fashions."

No one can argue that today's swimwear -- with its variety of
fabrics, colors and shapes
-- has come a long way. And today's women's styles --
as opposed to those bulky costumes
of earlier eras -- have liberated
the body.

Or have they?

"If we were really going into the direction of liberation, what we would be doing is encouraging nudity on beaches because people would wear nothing. That would be free," said Ms. Flores. "But today there is this emphasis on this little piece of cloth, and what (the swimsuit manufacturers) really are doing is forcing us into more and more artificiality."

Consider, for example, today's trendy swimsuit with its high-cut hips and barely-there bottoms: "It seems to me that this is a continuation of the fetishes of women's bodies. I don't think these styles are particularly comfortable, and I don't think they are very flattering."

On the one hand, she said,
"there is the movement to-
ward freer movement and
more unveiling . . . hardly would we want to be in the days when we would want to be in swimming suits that went down to the ankles. But at the same time, it doesn't seem that it's really freed women, because it looks as though it has gone more in the direction of fetishes . . . and made bodies into objects," said Ms. Flores, who, with a colleague, has studied how changes in women clothing are related to changes in women's roles in society.

This has happened throughout history. Swimsuits have focused on various erogenous zones over the years, depending on what society considered the ideal female form -- an ideal, of course, that is ever-changing. Plunging necklines and constructed bras focused on the bust; "peek-a-boo" and two-piece suits exposed the naval and midriff; high-cut legs drew attention to the legs, thighs and hips.

There is no doubt, however, that the swimsuit purchase is an important one. "A swimsuit is not just a body covering. It is a vehicle for visions of glamour, fashion and faraway places," swimwear designer Anne Cole said in the introduction to her collection. "There is a certain woman who cares about style and knows how to wear clothes with a difference. Such women wish to convey the same impression of cultivated taste in their swimwear as in the rest of their wardrobe. . . . I've always believed that a bathing suit should reflect current fashion, but its primary function is to enhance."

A new book, "Making Waves: Swimsuits and the Undressing of America" (Chronicle Books, $19.95), may stir up a whole new interest in what the authors portray as a most fascinating garment.

In "Making Waves," authors Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker chronicle the evolution of the swimsuit, and trace the psychological and social roots of its various styles and appeal. And they do it delightfully in a book filled with such familiar faces as Annette Funicello, Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and Ronald Reagan -- all modeling swimsuits.

"If clothing is a language, then a bathing suit is a telegram: a few brief lines packed with information that commands instant attention," write the authors.

Clothing itself is erotic because it arouses curiosity about the body as a whole, they explain. "Seen in this light, the swimsuit has functioned as a kind of sartorial italics that, over time, have been refocusing erotic attention on various parts of the human body. Modifications in swimsuit design have continually refreshed, revitalized and remystified what is in essence a rather banal mannequin."

Just as dramatic as the change in styles has been the change in materials. Swimsuit fabrics have progressed from heavy knits (soaking wet, these seafaring garments weighed in at nine pounds, which explains why they often ended up around a swimmer's ankles) to high-tech fabrics that enable modern-day swimmers to glide easily through water.

Before accomplishing the latter, manufacturers experimented with a great number of "novelty" materials as well: Swimsuits were made out of seaweed, rabbit fur, ermine tails, mesh and rhinestones, mosaic tiles, cellophane, neckties and plastic. One of the most unforgettable was, perhaps, the wooden bathing suit of 1929.

"Though it provided ample coverage, this clunky two-piece swimsuit was a monument to disutility," write the authors. Somewhere along the way, it seems, the popular imagination had learned "to turn function on its head."

The barrel look is just one of the swimwear standouts brought to life in the book. There are others:

The Man's Topper of 1933. For men, this style was the new thrill, write the authors. It was "admirably modeled by Warner star Dick Powell who, as it turned out, had the hair airbrushed off his chest in the promotional photograph."

The Topper offered males the option to liberate their chests by providing a detachable top, held to the trunk with a zipper. If a swimmer dared, he could go bare-chested by detaching the top. Many men apparently did just that -- and often were arrested for indecent exposure.

The Dalmatian Suit of 1954. Drawing inspiration from the canine world, dalmatian-spotted suits were frequently sold as mother-daughter combinations, "offering a humorous domesticated version of the female animal."

The Boned Suit of the 1950s. While a steel corset was routinely worn under bathing suits until 1912, the swimsuits of the '50s were, without a doubt, "constructed."

Bras were boned and lined with a layer of foam rubber molded with a stiff fabric to create a high, rounded bosom. Many suits were boned at the sides as well to produce a smooth, long torso. "High beams" was the popular nickname for the pointed breast construction of 1950s swimsuits.

Beach Blanket Barbie. When the Barbie doll was introduced in 1952, the miniature bathing suit appeared as a seasonal counterpart to the adult costume, teaching little girls how to look oh-so-chic at the beach. Each year, Barbie was packaged in a brand-new beach ensemble -- complete with thongs (one of which immediately disappeared), sunglasses, beach bag and tanning gear.

These, of course, are all styles we can laugh at now. But one wonders what exactly is left for swimwear designers to design. If history has its way again, write Ms. Lencek and Bosker, the swimsuit of the future "will present the challenge of having to do so much more with even less."

With this in mind, you may never look at a swimsuit in the same way again.

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