Important pioneer research effort, somewhat marred by untested claims

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Malcolm MacLean
University of Gloucestershire


Christine Schmidt The Swimsuit: Fashion from Poolside to Catwalk 163 sidor, hft., ill. Oxford: Berg Publishers 2012 ISBN 978-0-85785-123-9

Christine Schmidt
The Swimsuit: Fashion from Poolside to Catwalk
163 sidor, hft., ill.
Oxford: Berg Publishers 2012
ISBN 978-0-85785-123-9

The swimsuit is one of the most ambiguous items of clothing: thoroughly functional as an item of sport and leisure wear revealing and exposing the body in often controversial and disruptive ways, it is a fashion item making its own space on the catwalks while its driving forces are peripheral (literally, beachside but also outside the major fashion centres – Paris, London, New York, Milan and so forth). Despite that marginal and paradoxical status and the ability of those things on the margins and borderlands to inform social, cultural and scholarly analysis, the swimsuit has failed to draw significant attention from any of the three major fields where there might be scholars with an interest – cultural studies, fashion studies and sport studies. Hopefully, this useful exploration of the changing status of the swimsuit will challenge scholars to look closely at that often flimsy item of clothing to help to begin to change scholarly failure; in doing so it starts to fill a gap.

Some of the reasons for this failure of scholars might be interesting – it is essentially trivial (but that has never stopped cultural studies, a field of study that in some of its forms celebrates the trivial) so perhaps it is the risk of licentiousness or the problem of where, culturally and analytically, to locate the swimsuit – sportswear, leisurewear, high fashion, all of the above. In some ways, it is not surprising that it has been glossed over. Yet, as Schmidt shows compellingly, debates about the swimsuit are debates about the body; in its modern forms (since WW2) it has not allowed any fudging of the shape of the body, partly due to fabric technology, partly due to changing cuts and styles (which cannot be separated from fabric technology) and partly due to shifting social mores allowing more exposure of the body. Of all classes of clothing, the swimsuit is among the least forgiving to those whose bodies do not conform to the received or dominant shape.

Schmidt weaves together four principal strands in this exploration of the development of the swimsuit and its emerging status as part of a fashion system (although she is not that Barthesian). The first strand is the emergence of the body from behind its drapery, and with that the intense cultural-political disputes over respectability and bodily revelation. The second strand is the technical and design development of the swimsuit, exploring social issues such as the legitimacy of styles as well as the technical and industrial aspects of design and fabrics. The third strand is the inter-relations of sport, leisure, style and the fashion industries. This is obvious in two ways; first, through her explorations of swimsuit popularisers such as Annette Kellerman, but also in her discussions of the more recent high profiles of Olympic and other performance athletes as style makers and markers; and second, through her close analysis of the emergence of the swimsuit as a fashion item within the fashion industry. Finally, she emphasises the peripheral status of the swimsuit by concentrating her analysis on the Australian context, and investigating the place of the swimsuit as a marker of nations (not surprisingly, Brazil emerges as a comparable case). A key aspect of this final strand is her contrasting of the Australian swimsuit for swimming and the Hollywood swimsuit for glamour.

Young women posing in swimsuits on sand dune, glass lantern slide, 1940s, Flickr Commons / State Library and Archives of Florida.

Young women posing in swimsuits on sand dune, glass lantern slide, 1940s, Flickr Commons / State Library and Archives of Florida.

In weaving these strands into her argument emphasising the significance of the swimsuit as a clothing and fashion item articulating sport and fashion industries in a distinctive way, she takes in vaudeville and mermaids, the fitness industry, Hollywood glamour, high end and popular fashion and performance and participation sports. Her case for the significance of the periphery is compelling, if for no other reason than beachwear is, in its very nature, peripheral – the beach being a marginal, liminoid space imbued with images and claims to freedom – and swimsuits as a means of body display tended to walk a line between being respectable, risky and risqué.

I suspect this should be a useful sacrificial study, sacrificial in the sense of being a foundational text that subsequent scholars refer to, draw on and critically develop, but I fear that the politics of publication will mean that it will become a one-off foray into a fertile field to become the orthodoxy, with all its flaws. The one I’d most like to see pushed is its untested claims to Australian distinctiveness (the questions posed are rich and demand careful scrutiny) when close comparative studies drawing on the Brazilian evidence skimmed by Schmidt, Hawai’ian and New Zealand evidence could provide rigorous tests of her claims to the significance of the periphery while also teasing out distinctions between beach culture and surf culture in the swimsuit’s cultural significance. Equally, we need much more exploration of the development of swim wear in places such as the east coast of the USA, Britain and France before the case that the swimsuit is not only Australia’s distinctive contribution to fashion but is distinctively Australian; Schmidt makes good use of historical studies such as Doug Booth’s Australian Beach Cultures but in the absence of similar rigorous analyses by historians of other nation’s sports cultures we cannot be sure of the comparative claims being made. There are implicit and explicit challenges to analysts of sport and of fashion in the questions this book presents.

Anton Bruehl, Swimsuit advertisement 1951, dye-transfer colour photograph, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Gift of American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia Inc., New York NY USA made possible with the generous support of Anton Bruehl Jr, 2006.

Anton Bruehl, Swimsuit advertisement 1951, dye-transfer colour photograph, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Gift of American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia Inc., New York NY USA made possible with the generous support of Anton Bruehl Jr, 2006.

Schmidt writes clearly and lucidly, and although much of the material will be new to many readers, her presentation is unlikely to leave many uncertain of the case. Production quality is high and the volume is well illustrated, although no doubt for cost reasons all in monochrome rather than colour. However, the presentation of the reference list is annoying; it is broken into nine categories of source, distinguishing audiovisual material, books, exhibition catalogues (how are they not books?), reports from government or industry, internet sources, interviews and personal correspondence, journal articles, magazine articles, newspaper articles, theses and trade journals and mail order catalogues. Trying to find a citation becomes extremely frustrating, and Berg should not have let this one through; it is a production error. The reference list could have been extremely useful given the scattered character of sources for a study such as this; it is, instead, a difficult to navigate mishmash.

Leaving aside this presentational flaw, The Swimsuit shows how important it is that scholars and analysts of sport pay attention to and explore broader and related cultural industries. The sport-fashion links are among the most useful there: as two borderline and hybrid cultural industries, their interweaving can and should tell us a lot about sport as a consumer industry and its contemporary cultural imbrications.

Copyright @ Malcolm MacLean 2013

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