In A Captivating Panoramic Display, 1920s "Bathing Girls" Show How Quickly Fashions Changed

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Nov. 14 2013 9:45 AM

In A Captivating Panoramic Display, 1920s "Bathing Girls" Show How Quickly Fashions Changed

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This 1920 image of a gathering of  “Bathing Girls” on Balboa Beach, Calif., comes from the book The Big Picture: America in Panorama, by Josh Sapan.

The volume is the fruit of Sapan’s obsession with collecting vintage panoramic photographs. While some historical panoramic photographs were composed of separate images pieced together, the ones in this book are made with cameras able to hold the large negatives required—specialized equipment that was invented in the late 19th century.

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The new panoramic camera was a perfect complement to other early-twentieth-century interests: voluntary associations and advocacy groups; professional organizations; urban life; large-scale public spectacles. The Big Picture contains images of meetings of suffrage organizations, ground-breaking ceremonies for pavilions at world’s fairs, and troop transport ships with their decks clustered with men bound for WWI.

The format makes particular demands upon the viewer. The book is an odd shape: it’s very long and short, to accommodate the full span of its images. In order to get at the glory of the panoramic image, you have to spend some time scanning back and forth.

This photograph of the Bathing Girls needs to be clicked upon and explored in its zoomable format. That way, you can see the detail of each bathing costume, and observe the watching crowd of men, massed behind the line of women.

The incredibly wide range of fashion choices in the gathering reflects the ferment in the world of women’s swimwear—and women’s fashion in general—in the teens and twenties. Some swimmers in the group are still wearing floating, knee-length dresses of the older style, while others have gone for more form-fitting, shorter options.

One modern-looking lady, seventh from the left, sports a one-piece that might not look strange on today’s beaches. Her legs are bare, and stand out in the parade of half-rolled stockings. The placement of her hands, near the abbreviated hem of the suit, might be incidental. Or is she tugging the fabric downwards, asking herself how she could have been so daring?

BathingBeautiesFinal
"Annual Bathing Girl Parade," Balboa Beach, California, June 20, 1920. Click to zoom.

From The Big Picture: America in Panorama, by Josh Sapan.

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

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