Cumberland Times-News

July 24, 2008

There's always something new under the sun!

The popular press has been devoting a good bit of space in recent weeks to the new swimsuit, introduced by Speedo, which supposedly has contributed to the record-breaking times posted in the Olympic tryouts.

Unlike the postage-sized trunks of the male competitors and the bikini-bra outfits of women in the past few years, the new suit extends from just above the ankles to a hair-covering hood, and includes tight fitting sleeves. It is a sort of full-body corset.

Bathing suits are a modern invention. Men have been successfully propelling themselves through water for thousands of years, stark naked or stripped to their skivvies. Ladies, for the most part, didn't swim, or, like Queen Victoria, went to extremes to protect their modesty.

She enjoyed a dip in salt water, but she went from her summer palace at Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, in a cabana on wheels. When she had been pushed to the right spot of ocean, she opened a trap door and lowered herself into the water, where she splashed happily in a tiny space, out of sight of all humanity.

Legend tells us about Leander, who swam the Hellespont to reach his sweetheart, Hero. Greek and Roman soldiers learned to swim as a survival skill. Roman gentlemen visited the public bathers, where, in addition to hot and cold tubs, rooms for massage and sweating and pomade, there was a natatorium, or swimming pool. Supposedly there were separate, but similar, accommodations for their wives. But the historians say nothing about bathing suits.

By the opening of the modern Olympics in 1898, men's swimming had become a spectator sport, and rather loose garments, reaching to the knees, replaced the earlier underwear. They were of knit, not woven, fabric, providing a degree of elasticity.

American women, however, were still well wrapped up when they went to the beach. We have a bathing dress in the Museum, dated approximately 1905, which was typical of its time. The bodice extended up to the chin, there were sleeves, and there were knee-length bloomers that peeked out below a wrap-around skirt. The long black cotton stockings, obligatory with the outfit, are the only part of the costume that has not survived.

Obviously the lady in such an outfit had no interest in getting wet. She might pick up shells, or build sand castles with her children, but she could not join her husband in jumping waves or attempting a timid doggy-paddle.

Then came the revolution! In 1912 the Olympics introduced a swimming event for women. In the war years that followed women shortened their skirts, bobbed their hair and agitated for voting rights. By the 1920s they were appearing in one-piece bathing suits, and Gertrude Ederle made it clear that the costume was not a fashion statement.

When I went to college, passing the swimming test was a no-credit, no-excuse requirement for graduation. True, I was exempt from recovering that brick from the bottom of the pool (I had a chronic sinus problem) but I had to propel myself around the pool for 20 minutes without touching the side. For students, as for those ancient Greek warriors, swimming was considered a survival skill.

For the college swimming team there were sleek yellow Jantzen bathing suits; for girls like me there were ugly gray cotton outfits supplied by the college and supposedly sterilized (boiled?) after every wearing. We didn't invite the boys from Haverford or Penn to join us at the pool!

Off-campus it was a different situation. Bathing suits sported ornamentation, bright colors, and year after year, little by little, they became skimpier. We began to wonder whether they were held on by super glue.

This year, all of a sudden, the "In'' bathing costume is a body suit concealing arms and legs and hair in an effort to reduce the friction in the water and cut fractions of seconds from the standing records.

Not everyone agrees that the LZR suit is all-powerful. Perhaps the benefits are psychological, giving the swimmer an extra measure of confidence. Perhaps the records have been shattered because of the intensive training in an Olympic year. It's too soon to tell.

As with most new innovations, the LZR suit comes with problems. It is very expensive, at this point only feasible for swimmers who have some kind of contract arrangement, or team backing.

The knit is so tight that it sometimes takes longer to put the suit on than to swim the distance for which it is worn. And there are some people who feel that the suit is like steroids, an unnatural, illegal supplement to the athlete's talents. Apparently we can expect that, sooner or later, these glamour suits will be the subject of court cases.

The technologies developed in the LZR suits - body compression, a super-sleek surface to glide through the water, and the elimination of bulky seams by welding the parts together - will undoubtedly be applied elsewhere, and will themselves be replaced by other discoveries.

There's always something new under the sun!

Betty VanNewkirk is the historian for the Frostburg Museum.