'Spectacular Bodies: The Swimsuit, Censorship and Hollywood'
Speaker: Ellen Wright (University of East Anglia)
Date and time: 5.15pm, Monday 3rd June
Location: Gordon Room (G34) of Senate House
A product of rapid advances in textile technology and a 20th century obsession with physical fitness, this paper contends that the swimsuit both nurtured and epitomised America’s inter-war sexual revolution.
Whilst the earliest bathing attire was concerned more with modesty than revelation the emergence of more provocative post-WWI Hollywood representations such as Mack Sennett’s ‘bathing beauties’ established a cultural precedent in American culture, feeding a beauty pageant craze and associating the swimsuit with modernity, freedom, fashion and youth.
A garment whose currency is also symptomatic of the 20th century vogue for ‘sunbathing’, a preoccupation with the modern, machine-like, vigorous body, of the inter-war ‘cult of fitness and fresh air’ (exemplified by The Women’s League of Health and Beauty and their mass-participation exercise displays), and of America’s love of spectacles (such as the Esther Williams swimming movies and kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley musical sequences), the swimsuit and the spectacular body swiftly became synonymous with Hollywood and modern American culture.
By the twenties film star pin-ups, frequently featuring vivacious swimsuit-clad subjects, had become a photographic standard when promoting Hollywood starlets, carrying strong connotations of modernity and agency. Nor was this linkage of exercise, agency and sexualisation restricted to female stars – matinee idols such as Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe in roles such as Tarzan and ‘beefcake’ pin-ups, visually reminiscent of imagery surrounding both the recently re-emergent Olympic and the Fascist movements, were indicative of Hollywood’s ‘modern’ objectified masculinity which for some appeared feminised or offensive.
As such, the swimsuit became a symbol of transgression, aspiration, and proactivity performing an essential function for the film industry, as a means to display spectacular bodies and titillate audiences without violating censorship codes thus offering us a fascinating means through which to explore the convergence and negotiation of industrial and cultural forces in the late modern age.
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