It may be brightly coloured, multi-coloured, or a simple single colour; it may be made of expensive material, of cotton or Lycra; it may spread across the hips or leave them largely bare with just a thong or string at the back; or it may consist of no more than brief triangles, like leaves that have somehow gotten stuck on the skin. Alternatively, it may be designed strictly for effect and present a veritable barricade over the breasts. All of these forms are known and seen on a daily basis everywhere we go.
Comprising two pieces of fairly thin material, generally following a double-triangular design, it does not seem to hold much promise when seen dangling from a hanger. But on a woman, it undergoes an incredible transformation to behold! Those two pathetic bits of cloth you might have thought were only accidentally on the shop’s swimwear shelf suddenly change in form and dimension as if someone has breathed life into them. These patches of material on the skin are all at once points of interest, ornaments, even statements. The bikini reveals as much as it clothes, an image which fills many male observers with enthusiasm at the sight of such a transformation.
There is virtually no other item of clothing linked with so many ideas, images, and preconceived impressions. For the bikini belongs to the mythology of today that shapes our concept of reality. In much the same way as the speed of a motorcar bestows on its driver an intoxicating sense of power, and indeed just as a gold credit card has the power to avail its possessor of infinite possibilities, the bikini represents a blank screen open to a person’s imagination. When we acquire such things or begin to use them, some of the magic they have, the scope for imagination that we credit them with, rubs off on us and can change our lives forever.
So when a woman wears a bikini, she is not simply dressed in any old bathing costume. On the contrary, she is wearing a magical thing, something that will transform her and turn her into someone else – like the magic wand in fairy tales. She becomes, you might say, an actress acting out her own life. For those new virtues bestowed on her by the bikini will take her into a world of new and hitherto unseen possibilities, nothing like the ordinary everyday world – a new world in which everything that should happen does happen, and happens as if destined to happen.
But for a bather in a bikini to be able to reach that world of new possibilities, she must find herself enough space to enable the metamorphosis to take place. Only then does the full range of possibilities become fully available to her. This special kind of space is to be found in what have already been described as “aquatic recreational landscapes” – the sands and beaches along the coasts of the continents: a strip of “space” consisting of an almost infinite number of shorelines and banks, where the rules and regulations that normally govern our lives may be put aside, their authority ignored.
Indeed, we all know this aquatic recreational landscape very well. It forms an irreplaceable part of all our lives. Yet, even for a swimsuit as dazzlingly wonderful as the bikini, the process of reaching that landscape and then becoming established in it was neither short nor straightforward.
The first bathers to compete for space on our beaches made their appearance at the end of the nineteenth century. Until that time the sea had been regarded as disturbingly dark and mysterious. So often extolled by classical authors and poets, the sea had become almost entirely hidden in the murky and morbid world that was the medieval experience of human life. It represented the unknown and the perilous. Even to be near the sea was hazardous and unhealthy. People who lived on the coasts kept well clear of the edge, especially when building their houses, in order to be protected from “dangerous currents”, not to mention evil spirits.
This belief, that certain areas were injurious to health, lasted right up until the beginning of the twentieth century. It was always said, for example, that the Coliseum in Rome gave off “unwholesome vapours” – of which much was written by Stendhal in his Promenades dans Rome. Henry James’ Daisy Miller contained something similar: the eponymous heroine dies after a night of madness spent in an ancient amphitheatre.
The seaside was prescribed as treatment only for those suffering from incurable illnesses. On the periphery of the unknown, beyond what had long been presumed as the Edge of the World, the Abyss and the Void, it was not so much a seaside resort as a last resort. In much the same vein, during the seventeenth century to plunge head-first into the sea three times was held to be an efficacious remedy for rabies.
But during the nineteenth century, the genuine medical advantages of residence beside the sea began to be extolled. Salt water, well shaken until foamy, was declared to have health-giving qualities and prescribed for anaemia, nervous conditions, convalescence after fractures or sprains, asthma, and skin diseases. Such “cures”, however, were strictly science-based (as indeed was just about everything during the nineteenth century), and a patient was required to follow very precise instructions as listed. You might thus be required, with your feet in water that was neither too shallow nor too deep and reasonably close to the beach, to practise lithe movements for precisely five minutes, and then to stride forward boldly until the water reached the level of your ears, and to remain in that position for as long as possible without moving. Having finally left the water, it would then be imperative to restore your badly slowed circulation by means of stretching exercises on the beach.
It is rather like what happened when public services began on the trains. Passengers were advised to protect themselves from being thrown around by the high speeds by strapping cushions on the stomach and back. Again it was a matter of protecting the body from the terrors of a new and unknown environment…
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