Vancouver Maritime Museum's Babes & Bathers dives into swimwear past

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As you might expect, the evolution of the swimsuit is directly related to the use of decreasing amounts of fabric. In real terms at the new Vancouver Maritime Museum exhibit Babes & Bathers, that means the historic styles on display range from the voluminous, body-hiding extremes of Victorian swimwear—think puff-sleeved, full-skirted linen dresses layered over knee-covering, bloomerlike trousers—to the late 1970s’ locally invented “monokini”, as in a woman’s black bikini bottom designed by Christopher Ryan that comes sans top.

Still, all may not have been as it seemed on the beaches of the modest Vancouver of the turn of the last century. Years back, after a fashion show that included many historic body-disguising swim pieces, costume historian and collector Ivan Sayers reveals an elderly gentleman approached him and confided, “You know, once they were wet, you could see everything.”

Sayers provided most of the 60-plus pieces at the museum, and he and curator Patricia Owen are walking the Straight through the chronologically organized summer exhibition, which is amped up by blown-up imagery from vintage advertisements and photos from the beaches of Vancouver. “The changes had to be gradual,” observes Sayers, gesturing at the multiroom exhibit, “because if they were too provocative too fast, there would have been a backlash.”

If a tour through bathing-suit time reveals anything, it’s that you can also measure swimwear’s evolution in myriad other fascinating and fun ways. Take the almost mind-boggling range of fabrics, from the early-20th-century wool knits by Vancouver powerhouse Jantzen to a bombshell late-1950s gold lamé one-piece worthy of Jayne Mansfield to the bold, blue-streaked (gulp!) rubber briefs worn by a buff beach bodybuilder a half century ago.

“These are more theatrical,” Sayers says, standing by a cute fringed orange Annette Funicello–style two-piece that screams go-go era. “Certainly, they were not about swimming. This is about being ornamental. And there’s nothing wrong with being ornamental—unless it’s the only thing you think about!”

What’s also striking about the show, aimed in part at luring a younger, female crowd into the museum, is how chic and contemporary some of the vintage pieces in Sayers’s collection look. One ruched 1950s pink one-piece by Jantzen, with a cat’s eye effect on the bustier, looks straight off today’s retro-influenced racks. (A nearby poster, with the same style in navy blue, prices the design at $16.95.) A men’s cotton-knit navy-and-white striped set of drawstring shorts and swimming T that looks like something ripped from the latest J. Crew catalogue turns out to be almost a century old.

But perhaps the most impressive thing about Babes & Bathers is what a strong history Vancouver has when it comes to swimwear design (a tradition carried on today by cutting-edge labels like Anna Kosturova and Beth Richards). In the exhibit, beside an iconic shot of Joe Fortes, the famed English Bay instructor who taught so many early-20th-century Vancouverites to swim, is a row of wool-knit bathing suits emblazoned, varsity-style, with the names of the beaches where they were rented out (“Spanish Banks”, “Kitsilano Beach”). Later on, the exhibit reveals, a local designer, Rose Marie Reid, whose husband wore similar heavy-when-wet suits to lifeguard here, invented lighter, lace-up versions for the parks system to rent out. She went on to sell her line at the Hudson’s Bay Company, moved to California, and became one of the most famous swimwear names in her era—selling more than $800,000 worth in 1946 alone. And the influence of Jantzen, whose iconic diver image embellishes many pieces throughout the show, is obvious from the 1930s through today.

Anyone with a love of fashion and its history will want to plunge into this show, which runs till November 2. And visitors will probably leave appreciating their comfortable Lycra suit a little more, after imagining what wet wool might have felt like when our forefathers and -mothers plunged into English Bay all those years ago.

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