THE PUZZLE OF SWIMWEAR

In kindergarten, I craved a bikini almost as much as to be blonde.  Had Primark sold one with foam ‘breasts’, I’d have been thrilled.  Blame Barbie.

If you don’t believe bikini confidence is the apex of female achievement, read a gossip mag.  See a starlet condemned for that modern sin, cellulite (punishable by pricy unguent).  The message is clear: in swimwear, you enter a beauty contest.  Some love it.  Not me.  It’s small comfort this disquiet isn’t exclusive to me, nor even to women.  Remember David Cameron blaming Sam for his floral trunks?  Thus cleverly presenting them as evidence he was a ‘real man’ – too busy to fuss about clothes, his squaw fussing for him.

Like shares, trends in selective nudity go up as well as down, because swimwear reflects both fashion and attitudes to the body.  Fashion buffs claim bikinis were invented in war-torn 1940s, in a general moral loosening (and to save cloth).  But in fourth-century Sicilian villa, Piazza Armerina, mosaics depict maidens frolicking in bandeaus and undies as if auditioning for Baywatch.  Body-worshipping Romans adored beach babes as much as any Copacabana lech.  

As clothes evolved from togas, swimming togs receded until the Victorian  seaside boom.  Then, costumes mimicked ideal male and female forms, with men in longjohns, women clad neck to ankle, big skirts on top.  As women grew more active, all clothes shrank.  Witness the ever-skinnier 1960s’ ever-stringier bikinis.

Any Indian beach, where you’ll see women in everything from thongs to saris, illustrates that there is no single line on modesty today.  And Western swimwear offers distinctly confusing instructions about what shape to aspire to.  Busty women welcome the resurgent cutaway one-piece.  But 10,000 sit-ups couldn’t defeat this evil, peepshow garment, from which hip and back fat bulge like fleshy bubble wrap.  They suit only plump, bony women, i.e. Barbie.  But maybe these mixed body messages express muddled recession thinking – as we debate whether to fall on creature comforts, or get leaner, meaner.  Maybe next year swimwear will be more forgiving, necklines rising as shares plummet.  

In the meantime, to look sexy in swimwear, don’t stroll the prom in high heels.  You will fall.  Foam cups and built-in girdles can armour against indignity.   If you must wear a thong, wear it like a Brazilian i.e. with perfect peaches, or a German, i.e. with indifference to everyone else.  But until dimples are as coveted as in the nineteenth century, I’ll applaud you from my kaftan.

As seen in ES magazine

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