Summer’s just around the corner, and we’re all itching to get out of the house and leave the days of quarantine behind. As the weather warms up, the virus dies down, and our favorite establishments start opening their doors to the public, it’s going to be time to wipe those chip crumbs off your “daytime” pajamas and start exploring the great city of Charleston again.
Although there is no specific opening date as of yet, the Charleston Museum’s summertime exhibit Shapes of Summer: Historic Bathing Suits is hoping to make its debut at the end of April and stay on display through September, giving you plenty of time to marvel at these historic textiles that tell a story of both fashion and culture.
The exhibit was curated as an effort between the museum’s chief of collections Jennifer McCormick, former textiles curator Jan Hiester, and exhibit designer Sean Money.
Dating back to the late 1800s through the 1970s, these bathing suits explore a transformation in the way that both women and men dressed for the beach, opening up a discussion on how beachgoing became a favorite pastime for Charlestonians.
“Originally, the wealthy planters in this area were the first people to start going to the beach — mainly to get rid of the mosquitos and just get out of the heat,” explains McCormick. “So, they were the ones to start making Sullivan’s Island a place to go for leisure. Part of this exhibit is not only seeing the evolution of the bathing suits but also the evolution of transportation with bridges and ferries to allow not just the wealthy to enjoy the beaches.”
Some of the earliest swimsuits in the collection date back to the 1890s when beach gear was made from wool, occasionally cotton, and required women to cover much more of their skin than we’re used to today. These bathing suits had essentially a dress piece and a pair of bloomers. Until the 1930s, men were restricted from showing their chest at all, instead wearing a long pair of shorts and a tunic-like shirt.
The Shapes of Summer exhibit focuses mainly on female swimsuits and how, over time, they began to be made with less fabric, revealing more skin, but the exhibit also features a handful of historic men’s swimsuit styles as well. Almost all of the pieces in the exhibit were purchased across the country and donated by Charlestonians, giving us a true glimpse into past fashions. “The best aspect of this exhibit is the relatability of the pieces to the viewer,” says Liza Holian, the PR and events coordinator for the museum. “Residents and visitors alike can relate to the pieces, as many have several swimsuits of their own, and that sense of connection brings the history to life.”
For anyone interested in fashion or history, this exhibit has a few knockout historical pieces like a men’s black and red cotton suit that is thought to be homemade, as well as the most modern piece of the exhibit, goggles and a swim cap donated by James Island resident Kathleen Wilson who swam 21 miles across the English Channel in 2001. All other pieces range from the 1890s to the mid-1970s, but the exhibit also touches on societal changes surrounding these fashions and the history of swimsuit advertisements. “It’s really interesting to see the evolution of less fabric, more skin over time,” says McCormick. “And, now I think it’s going back in the opposite direction with modern styles like the high-waisted look — more fabric, less skin.”
The Charleston Museum hopes to open Shapes of Summer in late April. It will be on display through September. Learn more at charlestonmuseum.org.