Vintage Sexism: All Eyes on Suit

When you don a bathing suit, you’re usually getting ready to wade in the ocean or lie in the sun. A bathing suit is the most comfortable way to get poolside, right? In these ads from the 1920s through the 1950s, swimsuits also seem like something the opposite sex is meant to gaze upon. Our current stylebook, The Style Aquatic, draws from vintage suits, but displays them with a modern sensibility.

It’s not only all about the gals, but the guys, too. These two ads from the 30s draw the eye to the men diving in their one-piece suits. Both women and men are watching the divers, as if to say that if you wear these suits, you’ll be the center of attention.

The above images are just two examples of the beautiful ads that Jantzen swimwear put out in the 50s. While there aren’t really men in the photos with the women, the men are referred to. The messaging, “the look a man likes,” and “blue is for boys,” strongly implies that these swim looks are not for you to feel beautiful in, but for men to find you attractive in.

There’s nothing wrong with others finding you attractive, but sometimes you just need a little space, right? These women aren’t just being gazed at from afar, but surrounded, chased, and um, caught. These guys must think they’ve got quite a catch.

A lot of swimwear ads or catalog spreads today are similar to the images above, where the model or models are interacting with you, the viewer. You’re the most important part of the ad, after all. You’re the one wearing the suit, and you’re the one looking good!

How do you feel in a swimsuit? Is it all about you, or how others think you look?

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  1. Avatar
    tashach 03/12/2012 at 1:58 pm #

    I always feel a bit uncomfortable to be honest because always seems to be about showing off flesh and lol I’m pretty sure ‘swimming’ isn’t what a lot of bikinis are for.

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      K. 04/29/2012 at 8:00 pm #

      I agree with that last part. Sensible swimwear is best; I mean, I don’t dispute showing a little skin, but, the amount that most girls (and, lets be honest, some guys) show today… well, it leaves nothing to the imagination. I love the suits sold here; they’re cute, but not overly, uh, inappropriate; at most, I think that tankini’s are the final say of fashionable swimwear- no more skin than that is necessary to show, thank you very much 🙂

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    Sunita 03/12/2012 at 2:08 pm #

    I am a one piece girl. I have always felt a little uncomfortable in swimsuits until I bought my first Esther Williams suit (Beach Blanket Bingo in red). That suit is modest and classy, and I feel really confident when I wear it. I definitely wear a bathing suit for me because if I am wearing a bathing suit, that means I am going swimming. I don’t care how men (or women for that matter) feel about the way I look. As long as I am happy, everything is right with the world.

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    tamemoose 03/12/2012 at 2:42 pm #

    I switched to wearing a high waisted bikini bottom last summer and ever since then I’ve felt GREAT! I love wearing two piece swim suits, but I loved the sexy modesty and no worries about a one piece. High waisted makes me feel vintage, sexy, cute, modest and I don’t worry about belly hair, belly pudge, or lumps! I love it.

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    Alex K 03/12/2012 at 2:49 pm #

    I also really enjoy my one piece suits way more than my two pieces! I love styles like the ones above, they are so classy!

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    Lauren 03/12/2012 at 2:50 pm #

    I think it’s about how you feel. I’ve always been a one piece girl for a little modesty, but it can be hard to find beautiful one piece suits. Then I got my blue velvet one piece from ModCloth and honestly feel very comfortable and more confident in it. Thanks, ModCloth, for having those suits 🙂

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    CamiK 03/12/2012 at 4:03 pm #

    I wish there were more swimsuits like the jantzens one pieces! MUCH more coverage and very flattering. I don’t want to be worrying about popping out anywhere! I put on a swimsuit cause I want to go have FUN in the water and not just lay and get a tan.

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    Corrie Kartchner 03/12/2012 at 4:24 pm #

    When it comes to swimsuits, it should definitely be about how comfortable you feel in them. They are such a touchy subject for most women.
    I know I have a swimsuit that was bought for me that I feel shows off too much of my chest, especially for a one piece. Guess what has happened? I didn’t swim all last summer because it was the only suit I had and when swimming time came I had always forgotten to get a new suit.
    This year I’m buying a new suit and I already have one picked on on ModCloth.

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    Brianna 03/12/2012 at 4:25 pm #

    Just have to say that the Jantzen striped swimsuit is gorgeous- I would love to have one like that! But about how I feel in a swimsuit, I don’t necessarily get very self-concious body-wise, but my tan lines are terrible! I run cross country and track so all year round I have a spandex tan line and a sports bra tan line. It gets to bad that it looks like I am wearing white shorts! That is my only problem- if I could just be evenly tan all over, I would thoroughly enjoy going out in my swimsuit!

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    Mayra 03/12/2012 at 7:00 pm #

    I am very picky when it comes to swimsuits. Like most, it’s about feeling comfortable with what you’re wearing and showing a lot of skin is not my thing. I’ve been looking at the swimsuits ModCloth has, and I am having such a hard time deciding which one i want since all of them look perfect! I am going to the beach this summer, and all I want is to feel comfortable, but sexy at the same time. ModCloth is my definite choice for getting a swimsuit!

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    Roxanne 03/13/2012 at 1:17 am #

    Is there anyone who feels totally at ease in a bikini? On the other hand, is there anyone who doesn’t enjoy wearing them from time to time? For some-like me-there is the added criteria of the suit’s, ahem, “suitability” for swimming. I’m a swimmer/aspiring triathlete, so I’ve always worn plain (oh heck, ugly) utilitarian one-pieces for swimming because there aren’t many bikinis on the market that’ll stay on through real swimming… but I’ve always hankered after a really cute vintage two-piece that would not only turn some heads but stay on for diving and racing starts! I’d love to see a bikini in charming vintage taste geared towards actual use.

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      Eliza 03/13/2012 at 11:35 am #

      Same here, sister! I’ve always been a one-piece girl, but a cute two-piece might convert me. I love the Bathing Beauty ones from Modcloth, but I am too unsure about two-pieces to spend that much cash.

    • Avatar
      K. 04/29/2012 at 8:03 pm #

      I love the suits on this site; but, they’re more than a bit pricey for my blood. Tankini two pieces and an occasional one piece suit me just fine.

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    Katie 03/13/2012 at 1:49 am #

    Modcloth, I love you but please please PLEASE could you pretty please with sugar on top get swimsuits similar to the three featured in the “Blue is for Boys” ad from the 50s? My swimsuit is a nice retro inspired one-piece, both pretty and you can actually swim in it! I just want to add those pretty baby blue ones to my wardrobe 🙂

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    Kristen 03/13/2012 at 7:42 am #

    i wish guys still wore suits like that in America.

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      Amanda 03/13/2012 at 10:31 am #

      OoOo! Do they wear them like that in Europe?!?! One more reason for me to move there…

      • Avatar
        Kristen 03/13/2012 at 11:16 am #

        haha it’s what I’ve heard, def. a great reason to move there!

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      Eliza 03/13/2012 at 11:35 am #

      They don’t make guys like they used to. 😉

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    Eliza 03/13/2012 at 11:31 am #

    When I wear a swimsuit…..the LAST thing I want is to be gawked at. That really makes me feel uncomfortable. In the first photo…..if any fool ever chased me, I’d pull the pepper spray on him. Okay, maybe not, but still. I would definitely not be smiling and laughing. (Unless I wanted to be chased…..;D)

    I want to feel beautiful, classy, and modest in my swimsuit. I would never, ever parade my body around. I do not want to be the object of a “gentleman’s” affections, unless I knew him personally. All of the guys in these ads look like stalkers. Beautiful swimsuits, bad settings.

  14. Avatar
    Suzanne 03/13/2012 at 12:21 pm #

    Roxanne, I feel alright in a bikini! I have an orange two piece that looks similar to what Halle Berry wore in the Bond movie and then the Beach Blanket Bingo one piece in red from Modcloth. I figure 2 suits is all a girl really needs 🙂 I wear them interchangably, but I usually wear the one piece if I plan on getting some serious swimming in (the bikini top sometimes rides up) or if I’m in the company of unfamiliar men.

    • Avatar
      Roxanne 03/13/2012 at 5:29 pm #

      Exactly! 🙂 I like wearing bikinis, but I haven’t found one yet that stays on and is comfortable for serious swimming. I’d really love something that is cute and becoming (perhaps even sexy 😀 ) and that I don’t have to worry about when I do sprints.

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    anonymouse 03/13/2012 at 6:31 pm #

    I would be comfortable in a suit if they looked more like the ones in the ads. Most swimsuits try to be too sexy losing their function.

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    Jamie 03/14/2012 at 1:33 pm #

    lolol, the guy on the right in the first picture is a total creeper. As for swimsuits, I’m not really a fan. I’m not a big swimmer, but I do enjoy soaking up some sun in the summer, and this year I’m definitely opting for a one-piece. It may be the year I splurge on the Bathing Beauty suit; it really is the only swimsuit I’ve felt excited about. Whenever I bought a suit in the past, it always felt like a chore, and I always felt like I had to sacrifice style for comfort or comfort for style. Thank god for these flattering, vintage-inspired pieces!

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    Kayla 03/16/2012 at 9:10 am #

    I feel pretty self-conscious in bathing suits, not so much for modesty reasons but because I’m so pale. (You know when you’ve been inside all day, you finally step out into sunlight and a white sidewalk/the snow practically blinds you? That’s pretty much what my skin does.) I don’t mind being pale and would never, ever tan, (plus, my boyfriend likes my paleness) but it makes me feel weird when I’m surrounded by a bunch of tanned people and I’m a snowman (or rather snow-woman) by comparison. There’s also the issue of my bust: with 34 C’s, it’s hard to find a cute bathing suit that offers good support, so I have to shop for bikinis by cup size. I love the suits at ModCloth, but I’m just not sure if they would work on me.

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      Chloe 03/26/2012 at 8:48 pm #

      I feel you Kayla, I am the palest girl around and I have given up swimsuit shopping online, having DD’s makes it almost impossible to find a cute suit that isn’t crazy expensive or a bit more promiscuous than I’d like. I think it’s always funny the palest girl at the pool! And then people don’t even believe me when I do get a tan. lol

  18. Avatar
    nozomiwhitewolf 03/25/2012 at 2:15 pm #

    Something interesting my BF pointed out: Women will gladly go out wearing a skimpy bikini in public, at a beach, or whatever, but will freak out if someone accidentally sees them in their underwear (bra + panties) … lol.

  19. Avatar
    Ali 03/29/2012 at 3:45 pm #

    I usually feel completely comfortable in a bikini, but I can see where people would have problems. I do have to shop selectively when I go out looking for suits, though. I am six feet tall and ALL leg, so the tiny bottoms don’t cover much. I try to get ones with cute little skirts or shorts or something to cover some leg.

    I also am not very *ahem* well endowed in the chest. Anyone can tell you that it’s hard to fit someone my height with a 34A bust. Swimsuits are probably the hardest thing to buy. I love Modcloth’s suits, but I am such a tricky fit that I would have to try them on before I knew that they would work for me.

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