KPA#59: Swimming competitors on the floating deck on the Kelowna Aquatic Club during the 1945 Kelowna Regatta. - Credit: Okanagan Heritage Museum

Okanagan swimsuits had a modest beginning

Women were fully clothed when they swam, according to a new exhibit at the Okanagan Heritage Museum

Sexual yet modest, the theme of the bathing suit has changed little since the 1930s.

Guest curator Ivan Sayers’ exhibition Babes and Bathers: History of the Swimsuit explores the evolution of the swimsuit at the Okanagan Heritage Museum from June 8 to Sept. 3.

The Vancouver fashion historian said the bathing suit began modestly for women as fashionable sports costumes in Europe in the 1870s. During that time, men tended to swim naked and women were fully covered.

Earlier costumes involved women being wheeled into the lake using a cart. They exited the water in a way that onlookers at the shore would be unable to see them. Beaches were also segregated.

“It was weird, but it was appropriate for the Victorian attitudes about morality,” Sayers said.

It wasn’t until the 1890s that swimsuits were adopted in the Okanagan and styles were based on European fashion.

Costumes were conservative, men were covered from the knee to the neck and women were covered from the toe to the neck, Sayers said.

“Initially the men shared more skin and the women less… there’s a certain kind of irony there.”

News from the fashion world would have travelled as fast as the mail could carry it to the Okanagan, Sayers said.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that suits began to show more skin. Men’s tops began to disappear and women started to expose more skin on the chest and back.

He thinks the change came with the Great Depression.

“Nobody had any assets, the only thing you had that was stable that you could promote, was yourself,” he said.

In the 1920s, women weren’t supposed to have a figure, but the popularity of curves began to surface in the 1930s.

“Your own physical being was such an important value,” he said. The concept of having enough Vitamin D also gained popularity during that time.

Bathing suits changed again after the Second World War, but the main theme of the suits hasn’t. “There are always things that are consistent, in the late ‘50s early ‘60s they started to cut the sides of women bathing suits high up over the hip joint (to give the appearance of longer legs).”

“There always has to balance between modesty and seductiveness. In the books, it’s called the balance between modesty and display.”

This year, men are starting to show more of their thighs.

Sayer thinks that’s partly because most men, regardless of what’s going on with theirphysique, think they have really nice legs.”

He isn’t sure what the trend is for women but says tattoos may be why women continue to expose skin, in order to show them off.

The exhibition at the museum is all about having fun and getting an education.

“I’m really hoping the local and tourist population will love it.”

After 60 years, Sayers has returned with his exhibition in Kelowna because it was the first museum he visited while growing up in Summerland.

“When I came here the museum was in another building and they were using display cases that were rejected from other shops.”

“I couldn’t believe all these wonderful little treasures in little glass boxes,” he said.

After his first visit, he decided he would pursue a career in museums and has showcased his projects all over the world including Toronto, Dallas and Japan.

His envy of the beautiful people in swimsuits led to his exhibition at the museum.

“We’re showing the history, we’re showing the mundane, we’re also showing the glamour, to an extent we’re showing (the evolution) of sexual liberation.”

@carliberry_
carli.berry@kelownacapnews.com

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Okanagan Heritage Museum KPA#508: Lena Wilson, Tate Leckie, Ethel Glenn, Mabel Wilson, Mrs. JB Knowles and Ewart Wilson in their modest beachwear, 1912.

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