THAT GIRL, THAT BODY – The Parallel History of the Swimsuit and Miss Universe
“…tonight, we wore our swimsuits which were designed by Tala and she said that fashion is freedom and I don’t think the government should have any say in what we wear because we can all make our own personal choices.” – Jesinta Campbell, Miss Universe 2010 2nd runner-up
Borne out of Miss America 1951 Yolande Betbeze’s refusal to pose for then-sponsor Catalina swimsuit’s ad, no other beauty pageant had a more parallel history with the swimsuit than Miss Universe. In this feature we’ll see the swimsuit and Miss Universe’s colorful history together and how they both shaped the world of women and pageantry.
Every pageant girl knows that beauty pageants require the winner to be physically fit in order to be a role model of a healthy active lifestyle. The swimsuit competition is a way of choosing the most physically fit delegate and is usually the most dynamic and exciting segment, with lively music, exciting performers and a variety of choreographed turns and poses designed to showcase the best in each delegate’s body. But before you grab your swimsuit from the drawer, it’s good to know the series of events that made it look like what it is today.
The swimsuit that you see today is not just one man’s invention, it is a product of the innovation of different people who have changed and shaped it according to the times. However, the ancient Roman women are credited for using the first swimsuit prototype for athletic purposes.
During the 1800s to 1900s, swimsuits weren’t allowed expose any skin, and this made swimming cumbersome.
Thanks to Annette Kellerman’s exuberance, a much more radical suit showing her arms, legs and neck was first made in 1907. She got arrested for indecency though.
Taking cue from Carl Jantzen’s wool, two-piece rowing swimsuit, several designers followed suit and made swimsuits in different fabrics and styles. Hollywood pin-up girls, including Betty Grabble and Esther Williams made fashionable swimsuits popular in the 1940s.
In 1946, Frenchman Louis Reard released a garment more miniscule than the smallest swimsuit. True, he’s not the only one who thought of this before but Louis knew how to capture the fancy of consumers than the other swimsuit innovator. Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of current events, he named it the bikini, after the atoll where the French used to test their nuclear arsenal. The trend caught on quite well and the 1951 Miss World delegates wore bikinis for the swimsuit competition, but it was short lived, and after it was declared sinful by the Vatican, the bikini was passed over by pageant girls in favor of the one-piece swimsuit.
After innovation is reinvention and designers were looking for ways to make the swimsuit more exciting. Mother Nature as always, has the answer, animal prints. In 1950, swimsuit designers released the first jaguar print swimsuits. Other prints followed suit. Much later, the fierce queens of Miss Universe 2007 strutted in zebra-print bikinis from BSC’s African Queen Line.
In the 1954 edition of Miss Universe, Brazil debuted with a bang by sending the exquisite Martha Rocha who gave eventual winner Miriam Stevenson a fight for the title. The two were locked in a tie and although the judges found Martha’s face more beautiful, her 36-23-38 figure in swimsuit was out of standard compared to Miriam’s 36-24-36. Nevertheless, Martha and her ample hips were the most popular in parade that year.
While beauty queens had to content themselves with one-piece swimsuits, Hollywood actresses were getting the adoration of (male) fans through bikinis. In 1956, French actress Brigitte Bardot gained worldwide attention wearing a bikini in her first serious film “And God Created Woman.” Then in 1962, Swiss actress Ursula Andress stunned the world as seashell diver Honey Rider in Dr. No wearing this iconic belted bikini. Later on, various sports figures, models and actresses continue to influence the popularity of bathing suit styles.
1964 saw the first ever swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated. Stumped during the winter months, editor Andre Laguerre asked fashion reporter Jule Campbell to help fill some space, including the cover, with a model. She found Babette March and since then, Sports Illustrated has launched the latest styles in swimwear as well as the careers of several supermodels, most notably Tyra Banks, Heidi Klum and Elle MacPherson.
In the 1967 edition of Miss Universe two beauties were again locked in a tie – Venezuela’s Mariela Perez Branger and USA’s Sylvia Hitchcock. During those days, the judges were reportedly looking for not just a beautiful face but a well-formed torso, a modest bustline and a straight back in swimsuit. The judges decided to go with Sylvia’s torso and awarded her the title.
As an international pageant, Miss Universe must always be conscious of the customs of the country it’s being staged. In 1973, the girls were not allowed to wear their swimsuits inside the historic Odeon Herod Atticus Theater where sacred religious rituals were once performed. Instead they were made to wear custom toga dresses, like modern-day Greek goddesses.
Post coronation, Miss Universe 1980 Shawn Weatherly told the press that her job was not to exhibit her body but to make friends with people from all nations. Yes, she ate her words, but in a good way. Shawn would exhibit her fit body many times, but in the beach as she stars in the documentary Ocean Quest and the hit series Baywatch.
Miss Italy 1982 and eventual 2nd runner-up Cinzia Fiordipointi was a media darling due to her scene-stealing antics. In a photo shoot she ditched the Catalina one-piece and wore a tanga which didn’t go well with the officials.
Incidentally, the same year, pretty Odette Scrooby of South Africa got the bitter realization that the swimsuit competition occupies a large chunk of the composite score. She was given an abysmal score in the swimsuit finals and despite a commendable evening gown performance she was left out of the top 5. A déjà vu of sorts happened in 2000, when Colombia’s Catalina Acosta had the same experience.
Miss Indonesia 1983 Andi Botenri got a stern warning from her country’s leaders after seeing her swimsuit photos in a local paper. Andi still competed in the swimsuit competition in the prelims. Indonesia would never compete again until 1995.
Paraphrasing Shandi Finnesey in Miss Universe 2011, delegates wear the same swimsuits in order for us to be not distracted by weird patterns or suits, so we could see the girl. During the finals, delegates always wear identical swimsuits, same color, and same style. 1997 ssignalled the return of the bikini in the pageant stage as several semifinalists competed in bikinis while some stuck to the one-piece but they were all made of the same material.
2002 was a historic year for the swimsuit as Russia’s Oxana Fedorova earned the highest recorded swimsuit score in the history of Miss Universe with 9.88. Although she didn’t have the best body that night, her pretty face and confidence more than made up for it. After all, according to Carsson Kressley “Swimsuit competitions are always from the neck-up.” Sadly, Anisa Kospiri of Albania was the last semifinalist that we saw compete in a one-piece swimsuit.
In 2010, the swimsuit became a symbol of freedom when Miss Universe commissioned Dar Be Dar (Persian for door to door) to provide the girls’ swimsuits. Apparently, the owner and designer Tala Rassi got 40 lashes in Iran for wearing a miniskirt when she was few months shy of graduating from high school. Later, at 27 years old, and able to wear many miniskirts, she is already an established swimwear designer in the US. Evidently, her ordeal was thinly disguised in one of the final questions which landed on Jesinta Campbell’s lap. Jesinta in turn gave the most memorable answer of that night and finished 2nd runner-up.
2011 saw exotic Sao Paolo, Brazil play host to the beauties of Miss Universe with Catalina Swimwear Brasil providing their bikinis. It seems that the swimwear brand did not get the memo that it’s supposed to design for a pageant stage and not Ipanema. MUO had to send them back for “more material”. With multiple scandals about exposed body parts that year i.e. Catalina’s commando crotch, Sheryl Lee’s see-through gown and then too skimpy competition swimwear, I wonder how many pills had Paula Shugart taken to make herself sleep through the nights of the pageant. LOL
The swimsuit competition has always been one of the reasons why countless feminist and moralist groups condemn beauty pageants as enterprises exploiting women and promoting stereotypes. Protests during 1972 and 2000 were forever etched in the history of Miss Universe. Due to this the swimsuit has also been the subject of countless pageant questions, the most recent of which were those picked by 2 memorable runner-ups:
Miss Australia 2009 Rachel Finch was asked by famous international model Valeria Mazza:
I believe wearing a swimsuit especially a part of a beauty pageant is a beautiful thing,… it gives every one of us a chance to show our figures and our tone bodies and what we have work hard for and I think our body is our beautiful part of the woman and we should definitely show them to the rest of the world.
Rachel looked frazzled by the question and somehow her answer made her appear apathetic to the plight of the women that Valeria mentioned in her question. She finished 2nd runner-up.
Miss Brazil 2012 Gabriela Markus picked beach volleyball Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh:
Gabriela’s answer (in Portuguese but was translated to English):
"I believe that it's not just in the way that we dress that we show our true selves. We can show our character if we are wearing an evening gown or a bikini. The important thing is to show everyone the people that we are inside, in our hearts. Good night Las Vegas! Thank you!"
Gabriela, with her calm and laid-back demeanor gave an answer that neither addressed nor evaded the question. Anyway she looked happy with her 4th runner-up finish.
The swimsuit constantly evolves and styles become outdated only to return in a decade, updated and in fashion again. Belted hipster bikinis are now in vogue as they were in the 1960s. The same monokinis which debuted in the 70s got resurgence in popularity lately. Some women go even further and channel the 40s pin-up girls.
No question, the swimsuit made pageantry and the world exciting in general. Who knows where the swimsuit will take us in the future? The future holds many secrets and it’s up to us to know about them.
Thank you! Happy reading!
Note: Some of the insights here are my personal opinion.