“Bather with a Cigarette” is an oil on canvas artwork by Yasuo Kuniyoshi, 1924, that I saw at the Dallas Museum of Arts. The painting shows a curvaceous woman who is wearing a modern swimsuit and smoking a cigarette, which both express the newly relaxed behavioral codes of the 1920s. As mentioned by the museum, “during the 1920s, swimwear for women looked similar to swimwear for men, as the androgynous and tubular body was in vogue”. Before this time period women even had to wear the Victorian style swimsuits that included long dresses with stockings and even shoes that was designed to appropriately cover a woman. Of course with such dress codes it was hard for women to have free movement in the water and it even came with a great risk of drowning. During the time that Kuniyoshi painted this painting, the shown swimsuit was the new fashion that was allowed with new, relaxed laws about beach dress code. This curvy body, scandalous swimsuit and a woman smoking in public (by the beach specifically) was a great deal of freedom for women of the time.
But even though there were more relaxed laws, women were still subject to rules of how they could dress. Women still had to wear swimwear that was no shorter than 6 inches above the knee and did not reveal cleavage and as seen in the photo above there were police officers in charge of measuring swimsuits to make sure they are not violating the law. Any woman who did not comply with the dress code would be fined, “slut-shamed” or even arrested (as seen in photo below).
The stories that we have read for this time period only confirms that woman have always been ruled under men. They have always been told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. They have been oppressed. These swimsuit laws were accepted and pushed on the public by men who claim that they are there to protect woman and children, to keep them modest, and women who did not follow these rules where bad or immoral. This reminded me of the sentence Audre Lorde wrote in Uses of the Erotic:
The Erotic as Power “The fear that we cannot grow beyond whatever distortions we may find within ourselves keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, externally defined, and leads us to accept many facets of our oppression as women”. We also see in other writings of these times that when ever something is wrong, the woman gets blamed. When the son in gay in the Outing or Blessed Assurance the mother is blamed. In Desiree’s Baby the mother is blamed when the child is dark.