The NYT Ideas blog linked to this essay by Paula Marantz Cohen about the lack of modest swimsuits in The Smart Set, and I was reading along, completely buying into it. “Bathing suits: absurd, wrong-headed garments. I continue to be mystified by how people continue to buy and wear them.” Yes, I thought. I have often heard these complaints. It seems crazy that bathing suits are so immodest. Why don’t we wear dignified bathing costumes like they did in the olden days? “We laugh at the old bathing costumes, but we should be laughing at ourselves. It’s a lot more ridiculous to see her thunder thighs and his man breasts.” Yes, there is something shameful about prurient self-display. Let’s close up the beaches until common decency returns!
Then I mentioned the article to a friend, and she said patiently that it would be extremely uncomfortable to actually try to swim in one of those Victorian get-ups, and that the reason swimsuits have become more immodest is in part because they are more functional that way. It’s not necessarily some crazed conspiracy to humiliate women concocted by the bathing-suit industrial complex. It’s quite possible that the article is entirely ironic.
This seemed blatantly obvious suddenly, and I wondered how I couldn’t have thought of that immediately. I had fallen under the sway of the peculiar fascination of Victoriana, the same sort of blinding lapse of judgment that must lead people to listen to the Decembrists.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of conflating prudishness with proper respect for the mysteries of life, easy to imagine that widespread modesty might lead to a restoration of the link between sexual passion and some kind of holy transcendence like you read about in euphemistically engorged D.H. Lawrence novels. Maybe the bare ankle could again stoke the fire in the loins and heat our elemental urges and forge our link to the divine. Or maybe not. But the body of iconography that we know associate with the Victorian period—bathing costumes, etc.—exist to service those longings we may occasionally have for an era in which desire was more difficult to arouse and therefore must have seemed much more precious. Now, of course, an elaborate industry of persuasion and an ever-more infiltrative media apparatus works to keep us in a perpetual state of desiring from which it’s hard to garner relief. Victoriana offers a fantasy of escape into an era of less intensive marketing, where desire felt sacred because it was much easier to believe it was generated from deep within oneself.