Women in Bathing Suits Being Arrested

views updated

Women in Bathing Suits Being Arrested


By: Anonymous

Date: July 12, 1922

Source: Bettmann/Corbis

About the Photographer: The photographer is unknown.


The young women in this photograph are being arrested for exposing their legs in one-piece bathing suits, which was forbidden by ordinances in many U.S. commmunities in the 1920s. These women were probably either fined or released soon after arrest without charge: few women (or none) served jail time for wearing bathing outfits that violated indecent exposure or "public indecency" laws. Many violators of beach dress codes were fined on the spot by special enforcement officers, "beach censors," rather than being arrested.

Thousands of women were arrested in the 1920s for wearing leg-revealing swimming suits, which were a new development in the history of human clothing. In antiquity, swimming suits did not exist: bathing was done in the nude. However, for most of the last two thousand years open-water bathing or immersion for pleasure essentially did not exist in European societies. In the 1700s, ocean-shore bathing began to come into vogue and elaborate body-covering costumes were devised for both men and women. Men's costumes, like their everyday cloths, were more or less form-fitting; women's costumes resembled ankle-length gowns complete with bonnets, shoes, long sleeves, and gloves to prevent the skin from being browned by sun exposure. At the time, sun-darkened skin was seen as coarse or unattractive, the reverse of today's usual beauty standard for light-skinned persons in European cultures. Some South Asian cultures retain the earlier European standard, and many women guard themselves from the sun to avoid darkening.

Throughout the nineteenth century, bathing costumes remained bulky and restrictive for women, often made out of flannel or other opaque fabrics and even weighted with lead to keep the skirts from floating upward in the water. "Bathing machines" were standard at seaside resorts in England the United States, essentially closets or booths on wheels that could be rolled down to the water's edge to minimize exposure to the public gaze. By the 1920s, women's bathing skirts had shortened, in many cases, to just above or below the knee. Further, several forms of gender equality were being sought at the time: the vote, more equitable divorce laws, and broader career choices for women. To some women, it seemed unjust that men should be allowed to wear one-piece bathing suits that exposed their legs to the upper thigh while women must still wear skirts. (Men's bathing suits did not yet commonly expose the upper body either.) Crystal Eastman, one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in 1927 that as early as 1900, as a young girl, she "was a ringleader in the rebellion against skirts and stockings for swimming" in their summer community, and shocked her father by wearing a man's one-piece costume into the water. Yet he allowed her to do so: "he himself had been a swimmer," Eastman wrote, and "he knew he would not want to swim in skirt and stockings. Why then should I?"



See primary source image.


The primary social driving force behind the movement toward the one-piece bathing suit in the 1920s was not athletic freedom of movement but sexuality. Many or most of the women wearing the new, more revealing costumes could not even swim: they wore them on public beaches in order to be, in the language of the original caption of the photo shown here, "bathing beauties" The idea of being sexually admirable in a bathing costume was glamorized by the movies, for which the term "bathing beauty" had been invented: ordinary young women wanted to emulate the stars. In the late 1910s, beauty contests were organized for the first time in which the contestants wore bathing costumes. The first Miss American pageant was held on the beach at Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1921, featuring a parade of young women wearing one-piece bathing suits similar to those seen here. Bathing-beauty pageants proliferated throughout the 1920s, greatly enhancing the popularity of the one-piece, leg-revealing bathing suit for women.

Social conservatives in both the United States and Europe deplored the trend. In Italy under Mussolini, the National Federation of Catholic Men cooperated with the police to identify indecent dress at resorts and effect arrests. In the French city of Biarritz, rules required, as the New York Times for July 24, 1925 described, that "Women's bathing dresses must reach from the neck to below the knees. All décolleté [low-neck] effects are prohibited."

In the United States, numerous ordinances were passed and enforced to combat the trend toward female leg exposure. "Beach censors" were empowered to arrest people—usually women—on beaches who violated the codes describing what could be shown and what could not. Palm Beach, Florida, forbade "flesh-colored" or white stockings but had trouble enforcing the ban because a precise definition of "flesh-colored" proved elusive. Eventually, the beach censor was equipped with a set of color cards that could be used to test suspect stockings.

Massive disobedience of these laws defeated them. Eventually, public standards shifted. The old regulations came to be seen as absurd and were repealed. Public exposure or indecency laws today mostly ban the exposure of genitalia, not of other body parts: restaurants and other public places are allowed by law to require the wearing of shirts and shoes. A major exception is that in most U.S. communities it is still illegal for women to expose their breasts other than for the purpose of breast-feeding: thus, women can still be fined or arrested on most U.S. beaches for not wearing sufficiently concealing bathing costumes. This may change: a "topfree" movement in the United States and Canada seeks legalized toplessness for both sexes. In California, where public breastfeeding was not legalized until 1998, the public defender of Ventura County, Liana Johnson, asked the state legislature in 2005 to make topless sunbathing legal, equalizing male and female breasts under the law. California law presently forbids exposure of "any portion of the breast at or below the upper edge of the areola of any female person." Johnson's efforts have given rise to disputes over whether female toplessness is, under California law, "lewd"—a sex crime—or merely "indecent," a misdemeanor. At least one California court has ruled that even persons convicted of misdemeanor indecent exposure must register as sex offenders under California's Megan's Law, which requires the identities of such offenders to be made public on the Internet. Female toplessness on beaches is legal today in many European countries.



Salladay, Robert. "Woman Promotes Right to Go Topless." Los Angeles times. January 22, 2005. 〈http://www.save-california.com/getpluggedin/latimes_12205.php〉 (accessed March 8, 2006).

Web sites

Assumption College. "Revues and other Vanities: The Commodification of Fantasy in the 1920s." Undated. 〈http://www.assumption.edu/ahc/Vanities/default.html〉 (accessed March 8, 2006).

About this article

Women in Bathing Suits Being Arrested

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Women in Bathing Suits Being Arrested