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In The Swim

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Beaches burst with bright colors and fun patterns each summer as men and women show off the latest trends in swimwear.

It's all a little dazzling to Mary Deane Johnson, 79, who has a house on the creek.

"I'm amazed at the fashions they have today," she said. "Growing up, we didn't have anywhere near as many choices."

The bathing suits of her youth came only in drab, dark colors, and even into her college years they were made more for function than style.

"They weren't very pretty at all," she said.

The earliest suits Johnson wore were made of wool and "they were the worst," she recalled. "Oh, those suits itched. They were terrible."

They also stank when wet and never seemed to completely dry.

Betty Cain, 86, can't comment on the smell, but she can say for certain wearing a woolen bathing suit is not comfortable. The Murrells Inlet resident has one dating back to the mid-1920s stored in her attic. It belonged to her father-in-law and was last worn in the 1970s when Cain donned it for a pool party. She wore it over her regular suit just long enough to show it off, but said it itched even on the parts of her body that were covered by the other suit.

Dark brown with navy and green stripes around the bottom, the one-piece suit has a long sleeveless top with buttons on the left shoulder strap. Men's bathing suits had tops through most of the 1930s, Cain said.

"All the bathing suits used to be very conservative," said Alberta Quattlebaum, 81, of Waverly. "There was none of this two-piece stuff, I can tell you that. They would have hustled you out of the county."

Modesty is part of the reason wool was used for bathing suits. The material was capable of holding its shape even when wet, and the thickness of the material kept details concealed.

Johnson said her mother, Lucille Lachicotte, set tongues wagging by becoming the first woman to forego stockings on the beach.

"It was just too hot," Johnson said. "She decided it was silly."

Johnson isn't sure of the year, but said it was probably sometime after 1910. The bathing suits women wore at that time had knee-length skirts with attached bloomers and sailor-style tops. The suits buttoned at the neck, allowing the wearer to step into it from the top. The suit would have been accessorized with black stockings, as well as bathing shoes and a bathing cap, mobcap or scarf on the head.

"During the Victorian era, which ended in 1901, it was mandatory in society for arms and legs, as well as ankles to be covered," said Lee Brockington, a historian. "That mindset lasted longer in South, where we have stricter codes of propriety. It wasn't until the 1940s that you began to see skin at the beach."

The first chest-revealing suits for men appeared in 1932, according to a history of swimsuits at swimsuit-style.com. The suit was called the "topper" and had a detachable top that could be zipped away from the bottom. But men who chose to wear it without the top were often arrested for indecent exposure.

It was about a decade later that two-piece suits for women were introduced, and they were much more modest than bikinis of today.

"They covered the breasts, and the bottoms were more like shorts with a skirt over them," recalled Nancy Altman, a Pawleys Island resident.

More recent styles have "taken it to the extreme," said Quattlebaum. While she isn't advocating for wool swimsuits, "we need to go back to a little more coverage."

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