I came across this ad for bathing suits from the 1920s and was struck by how similar the men’s and women’s suits were designed. Hers might have some extra coverage up top and feature a tight skirt over shorts instead of just shorts but, compared to what you see on beaches today, they are essentially the same bathing suit.
So, why are the designs for men’s and women’s bathing suits so different today? Honestly, either one could be gender-neutral. Male swimmers already wear Speedos; the fact that the man in the ad above is covering his chest is evidence that there is a possible world in which men do so. I can see men in bikinis. Likewise, women go topless on some beaches and in some countries and it can’t be any more ridiculous for them to swim in baggy knee-length shorts than it is for men to do so.
But, that’s not how it is. Efforts to differentiate men and women through fashion have varied over time. It can be a response to a collective desire to emphasize or minimize difference, like the unisex pants below marketed in the 1960s and 70s. It can also be, however, a backlash to those same impulses. When differences between men and women in education, leisure, and work start to disappear – as they are right now – some might cling even tighter to the few arenas in which men and women can be made to seem very different.
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.