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Swimming to liberty

The summer heat is upon us and many of you may have started swimming, the only sensible way to stay fit in this season.

And almost all of us women take the swimsuit/bikini that we wear to swim in for granted. But not so long ago women in “liberal” Europe had to wear clothes that covered their modesty and which were hazardous in water.

A new book out in the UK called The Swimsuit by Sarah Kennedy chronicles the way the swimsuit changed as women fought for their rights to what we wear, and take for granted, today.

Says Kennedy, “The bathing suit is a perfect barometer. No item of clothing has evolved as dramatically as the swimsuit.” What women in Europe and America in the 1800s and early 1900s wanted was a piece of clothing that did not hinder their enjoyment of swimming, and not clothes which looked like gowns with crinoline with hems weighed down so that the garment would not float up.

In the 1850s, as part of the rational dress movement promoted by Amelia Bloomer, an American, loose trousers worn under a shorter skirt were introduced. Initially this did not catch the fancy but later, after being popularised as bloomers, they were also used for swimming.

Actually the Greeks, according to evidence on mosaic walls, wore the modern equivalent of the bikini as far back as 300 BC. But Europe in the 1800s and early 1900s was cruel to its women.

Says Kennedy, “In Europe and America, women could be arrested for revealing too many inches of calf. Wardens patrolled beaches to ensure that local laws were being adhered to.”

The swimsuit has in recent times been pilloried as a garment that over-sexualises women’s bodies, note the instance of the effort by some adherents of Islam to create a swimsuit that covers women all over (also called burqini).

It represents what women fought for so hard and won; the right to decide what to wear, an important step in the feminist movement. In 1907, Australian sportswoman Annette Kellerman was arrested in Boston for indecent exposure: her crime was that she was wearing a one-piece swimsuit with no skirt or pants to cover her modesty.

It may be hard to believe in a world where spaghetti straps are normal, everyday wear that the bikini was first designed (some use the word invented) in 1946. But even after that it took Hollywood’s glamour to make it an acceptable garment to swim in.

Are swimsuits and bikinis, in light of all these facts, garments of liberation or costumes that have exposed women’s bodies to the point of exploitation? Did the women who fought so hard to be able to wear an appropriate garment for swimming ever envisage that one day that same fight would be turned on its head, to be able to wear a more conservative garment?

The answer lies, much like it did during the debate over the burqa, in whether the choice is being made by the woman. Women are at the receiving end of fashion’s fickle nature and even losing their ability to choose what they wear.

In some ways having to stick to any stereotype denotes a lack of choice. And that would be sad, for after having come a long way, women and fashion would take a big step backwards if any one style in swimwear is inflicted on us.

More power to both the bikini and the new Islamic swim suit. For in choice lies true fashion and empowerment.

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