Women’s Liberation, Beauty Contests, and the 1920s: Swimsuit Edition

Women’s Liberation, Beauty Contests, and the 1920s: Swimsuit Edition

For several years, I’ve had a wall decoration in my office: a panoramic photo of a 1920s beauty contest. I was surprised to come across it at a discount home furnishings retailer and bought it on impulse. After all, how often does a cherished primary source present itself as a consumer good? From its inception, the Miss America pageant has reflected and shaped contemporary ideas about women’s roles and bodies. Gender, sexuality, race, and politics all play out vividly on its stage. Consequently, beauty contests have long been part of my survey course of U.S. Women’s History — from their origins in the Flapper era through the very public protests by feminists in 1968 and 1969.

The latest turning point in the history of Miss America is the unexpected announcement that the competition will no longer include a swimsuit (aka “lifestyle and fitness”) segment. And instead of evening gowns per se, contestants will “wear what they choose,” dressing in clothes that radiate confidence and express their “personal style.” These changes do not simply reflect broader cultural shifts. They constitute a conscious, deliberate attempt to exercise the beauty pageant’s influence. They promise to reboot the concept of female beauty, and to emphasize talent and intelligence in place of “looks.”

Most of the news headlines and the social media outcry focused on the end of the swimsuit competition, rather than the death of the evening gown. Many bemoaned the end of bikinis-and-high-heels, threatening not to watch anymore. Others celebrated the news, connecting it to the #MeToo movement and to Gretchen Carlson’s personal experiences fighting sexual harassment at Fox News. Had the new female majority on the Miss America board taken a feminist turn? Some implied the change meant to oppress rather than liberate women, imagining future contestants in burkas, in the red habits and white bonnets of the dystopian Handmaid’s Tale, or wearing literally no swimsuit at all.

Miss America itself encouraged the fixation on the swimsuit as a symbol of the past they were discarding; the official webpage illustrated the announcement with the hashtag #byebyebikini and the graphic of an exploding bikini.

The decision renounces Miss America’s origins in bathing beauty competitions on Atlantic City’s boardwalk.1 It calls up complicated histories – of clothing, of consumer culture, of feminism, and of how women claim public spaces. The swimsuit that is controversial now for its sexist overtones was controversial in the 1920s for its suggestions of women’s liberation.

Bathing dress to swimsuit

The bathing suit portion of the Miss America pageant dates back to 1921 in Atlantic City, a seaside resort. The competitive lineup of “bathing beauties” on the boardwalk marked the apotheosis of consumer culture and its mixed legacies for women. Though a long way from the Early Republic’s patriotic parades featuring women as allegories of Liberty and Columbia, it did have a nationalist and political subtext. Historian Kimberly Hamlin argues that the sashes derived from the suffrage movement and its own public parades.

Illustration of a woman in a knee-length, long-sleeved, full dress with baggy pants underneath.
“Bathing Dress,” 1858. (Art and Picture Collection/The New York Public Library)

Above all, the birth of Miss America capitalized upon the revolution in women’s swimwear that occurred in the early twentieth century. Earlier generations of American women went to the beach in bathing dresses. They wore long, loose gowns made of heavy material that “ballooned out from the body” when wet.2 The bathing dress was meant for passive wading at best. Female beachgoers weren’t supposed to swim. A circular logic claimed that women were too naturally weak and physically frail to swim, thereby keeping them out of the water where they might develop swimming skills.

In fact, the wool skirts of a bathing dress would tangle around a woman’s legs and even drag her underwater in a strong current if she tried to swim in them. Women’s death rates from drowning were alarmingly high in the nineteenth century. This eventually inspired campaigns to teach women to swim, as a public safety concern.3 As with the contemporary bicycle craze, women cited their health as a reason to revise gender restrictions. The emergence of women’s collegiate sports and of female professional athletes, like Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman, encouraged the cultural acceptance of women’s greater physical activity.

Women needed new attire to be mobile. Thus Kellerman not only wrote a book, How to Swim (1918), but designed her own line of swimsuits. The one-piece “Kellerman” had a scooped neckline and ended in shorts above the knee.4 Yet feminine modesty remained a consideration. Long before the Cold War invention of the bikini and language referring to attractive women as “bombshells,” female sexuality on display was deemed titillating and dangerous. Swimming pools designated “ladies’ only” days and times to contain the spectacle of the new, body-conscious swimsuit.

One could wear, or attach, silk tights or an overskirt to the one-piece. Or one could demur. Kellerman was arrested for exposing her legs on Revere Beach in 1908. But whether legs were bare or covered, as Angela Latham explains, the Kellerman-style body stocking suit “was specifically problematic in that it quite clearly revealed the contours of the female figure.” Many localities banned it outright.5

Four women standing on a beach wearing swim caps and swimsuits with a scooped neckline that end in shorts above the knee.
Mermaid Club, Philadelphia” members in bathing suits, c. 1915-1920. (George Grantham Bain Collection/US Library of Congress).

By the 1920s, many women expressed open dissent against expectations (and laws) that they cover up arms and legs, even on the beach. Modern “mermaids,” as the press often called them, flouted the limits of old-fashioned decency. They swam and sunned. They rolled down their stockings. They tanned shapes and words directly onto their bare skin with stencils. “I will most certainly not roll ‘em up,” declared the defiant, thirty-nine-year-old novelist Louise Rosine to the arresting officer in Atlantic City in 1921. Rosine allegedly punched the policeman in the face and later refused to post bail.6 Wearing a swimsuit on the beach, or on the boardwalk, constituted a heady new form of emancipation in the wake of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Nine women standing in a line side-by-side all wearing 1920s-era swimsuits, all wearing sashes with different US cities or states written on them.
Miss America contestants in swimsuits, Atlantic City, 1921. (AP Photo)

Margaret Gorman (third from the left in the 1921 photo) is regarded as the first Miss America. She won the 1921 Inter-City Beauty contest, which developed into the Miss America pageant we know. Not incidentally, Gorman prevailed over several contestants who did not roll down their stockings below the knee, as well as one who dared show much more thigh. She represented a youthful, free-spirited kind of beauty, though she didn’t go as far as to wear a Kellerman.

A woman standing, smiling and facing front with one foot pointed behind her, wearing a bathing suit in 1921.
Margaret Gorman, Miss America, 1921. (George Grantham Bain Collection/US Library of Congress)

The photo of the finalists from 1921 suggests that ideal American beauty came in a range of heights and builds. At the same time, it was unrelentingly white.7 Though women of color embraced flapperdom, they were not welcome in public places, north or south, including resorts and beaches. Many U.S. beaches were racially segregated, for “Whites Only,” into the 1960s.8 In 1930, Rule 7 of the Miss America pageant made this exclusion explicit: contestants had to be “of the white race.”9

And the generation that rejected the corset, off and on the beach, was the same one that began counting calories and dieting. In a sexualized consumer society, women themselves went on display. It became not only more acceptable for women to show more skin and more sex appeal, but more required. Daring fashions, from the one-piece swimsuit to the sleeveless shift dress were, as Joan Jacobs Brumberg put it, “a symbol of the ways in which culture and fashion in the 1920s had begun to blur the distinction between the private and the public self.”10 Women’s public selves were admired only when they met increasingly narrow standards, and only celebrated as a source of men’s heterosexual pleasure.

The objectification of women and the oppressive pressures of beauty culture seem foremost on the minds of Miss America’s board in 2018. In eliminating the swimsuit segment, and re-envisioning the evening gown, they hope to open up the competition to more women, just as they have attempted to redress racist exclusions. It seems a delayed reply to the Freedom Trash Can demonstration of 1968 and the “Women’s Liberation” banner that feminists in the balcony unfurled during the 1969 telecast.

Two women toss items into a trash can labeled “Freedom Trash Can” while a woman reporter looks on.
Freedom Trash Can, Miss America protest, Atlantic City, 1968. (Alix Kates Shulman/Duke University Libraries Special Collections)

But in the 1920s the swimsuit had a more complicated place in the culture and among women. It freed women’s limbs not only for the male gaze but for women’s own pleasure. It symbolized a modern, athletic womanhood, an emancipated female sexuality, a personal liberation. Though clouded and co-opted since, those meanings still resonate in popular culture, and in feminist debates over fashion.11 It’s not the lipstick or high heels, the swimsuits or bras, but their context that shows us what a feminist looks like.


  1. Historians of Miss America trace the pageant to the Bathing Beauties and the Inter-City Beauty contests of 1921. Atlantic City’s Fall Frolic parade of 1920 crowned a Miss America but that event wasn’t affiliated with the current pageant. Return to text.
  2. Patricia Campbell Warner, When the Girls Came Out to Play: The Birth of American Sportswear (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006), 62. Return to text.
  3. Marilyn Morgan, “When Culture Kills: A History of Drowning in America,” Consuming Cultures, August 24, 2012. Return to text.
  4. Lizzie Bramlett, “Swimming Tights by Annette Kellerman,” The Vintage Traveler, August 3, 2016. Return to text.
  5. Angela Latham, Posing a Threat: Flappers, Chorus Girls, and Other Brazen Performers of the American 1920s (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 69. Return to text.
  6. Latham, 83. Return to text.
  7. See Blain Roberts, Pageants, Parlors and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); Maxine Leeds Craig, Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race (NY: Oxford University Press, 2002); Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain, Pure Beauty: Judging Race in Japanese American Beauty Pageants (University of Minnesota Press, 2006); and E. Watson and Darcy Martin, eds.,There She Is, Miss America: The Politics of Sex, Beauty and Race in America’s Most Famous Pageant (Springer, 2004). Return to text.
  8. Erin Blakemore, “How Civil Rights Wade-Ins Desegregated Southern Beaches,” History, July 21, 2017. Return to text.
  9. Rule 7 was formally abolished in 1950 but women of color remained at a disadvantage. In 1961, African-American journalist Belva Davis created a beauty contest for black women: Miss Bronze. In a 2011 Ms. magazine article, Davis reflected that, “Today, few would consider the creation of a beauty pageant as a serious way to fight injustice, but it proved to be an effective tool four decades ago … I did everything I could to make the competition affordable to all young women. Entrance was free, as were the required charm school classes. We secured donated swimsuits for the contestants — always modest one-pieces, to keep the churches happy – and provided stipends for their evening gowns.” An even larger beauty pageant, Miss Black America, began in 1968 and continues today. Return to text.
  10. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (NY: Vintage Books, 1997), 107. Return to text.
  11. Linda Scott, Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Return to text.

Featured image caption: Miss America contestants in swimsuits, Atlantic City, 1921. (AP Photo)

Laura R. Prieto is Professor of History and of Women’s and Gender Studies at Simmons College in Boston. For 2017-2018, she is also Visiting Professor and Research Associate in the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at the Harvard Divinity School, where she is working on a book manuscript entitled, “Bibles and Butterfly Sleeves: Women and Protestant Missions in the Philippines, 1898-1945.” She has a special interest in using visual and material culture, from photographs to dress, as sources for women's lived experience.