Updated: Sep 17, 2019
When we talk of modesty, the question always comes up: What should I do about visiting the beach or the pool? To answer this question, I find it really helpful to go back and look at the evolution of women's swimwear, alongside Church teaching. I did a Twitter thread on this a while back that received some good feedback, so I thought I'd turn it into a post to make it a little easier to share with friends and family!
Before we begin, if you haven't read our Modesty Series, that's a good place to start first. It will give you a good summary of something we call the "Marian Standards of Modesty": a guide for women to dress according to Church teaching. This post won't really address standards, so much as the history and context of women at the beach, along with some of the diabolical forces behind it.
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Separate bath houses was the norm for most of the past 2000 years. In the 1400s, some mixed bath houses were introduced, but these were not places good people frequented. “[They] were considered hotbeds of vice, as only women with loose morals would swim in mixed company.” (1)
The Catholic Church (and other religions) condemned “mixed bathing” in the mid-18th century. (1). Even in separate bathing, the dress would be unrecognizable today. Celia Fiennes described what ladies wore in 1687:
“The ladies wear jackets and petticoats of brown linen, with chip hats...The Ladyes go into the bath with Garments made of a fine yellow canvas, which is stiff and made large with great sleeves like a parson’s gown.” (2)
Sea bathing became recreational in France in 1822, in large-part due to Marie Caroline, Duchess of Berry, daughter-in-law of King Charles X. She made it fashionable, and though it hardly looks anything like what is done today, this was the beginning of the popular past time. (3)
This would have been a typical American bathing suit in the 1870s (2):
They were made with fabric that would not become transparent when wet. Weights were actually sewn into the hems so that the dress would not rise up and expose anything in the water. (2) So wholesome!
From there, everything got worse. Dresses got shorter, sleeves disappeared. And then, you had Annette Kellerman. She was an Australian swimmer, who wore an outfit similar to what triathletes wear today (tight, sleeveless, extending to mid-thigh). She was arrested in 1907 while wearing this for indecent exposure, but that didn’t stop a society whose morals were rapidly declining from making her suit all the rage. (2) (4) Was the Church still talking about modesty? Oh yes!
In fact, around this time and a little later it was condemning the costume of women who danced cabarets. These women wore long skirts, but would infamously lift up the skirts to expose shorts underneath. Scandalous at the time, these shorts were actually more modest than the suit Annette Kellerman debuted, and far more modest than anything worn at the beach today. (5)
Back to the beaches. With Coco Chanel came the demand for a tan, and two French designers answered this demand with the advent of the “bikini”: named for an island completely destroyed by an atom bomb test (Bikini Atoll). However, the only model he could get to wear the thing was a nude dancer. (1)
Degenerate as morals were in the 1940s, the bikini was far from being accepted (1):
So, the norm of the 1950s beachwear would essentially be what many traditionally minded folks wear today: one-piece, tight, sleeveless, covers the breasts and backsides, but not much more. (5) Most women who wear this today are considered to be doing something “radical”, and by modern standards, they generally are. In fact, a lot of these women adopt strict modesty standards outside of the beach. But, is this enough?
Let’s look at what our Prelates had to say during this time (the time that still largely rejected the bikini).
1954, Pope Pius XII: “‘An unworthy, indecent mode of dress has prevailed’ without any distinction of place, ‘on beaches, in country resorts, on the streets, etc.'" (1)
1959, Cardinal Pla y Daniel: “A special danger to morals is represented by public bathing at beaches...Mixed bathing between men and women, which is nearly always a proximate occasion of sin and a scandal, must be avoided." (6)
Imagine what they would say today.
So, let’s back up a minute. What happened? Surely those rich women who started sea bathing as a recreational past-time did not intend for us to end up here, where the normal beach attire is basically nudity, and good Catholics wear worse things than what Popes have condemned.
Let me offer you one explanation. You can take it or leave it. A quote written by Freemasons (who have made it known that their mission is to destroy Christianity!), found in the International Review of Freemasonry in 1928 (1):
It would seem that this exact thing has happened to our culture, to Catholics, to practicing Catholics, and even in traditional Catholic circles.
Now, many, many times, when I talk about modesty, I am met with the argument that sounds something like this:
“But, to a certain extent, you have to dress according to the times!” So, I ask you, do the Church morals change according to the times?
"There always exists and absolute norm to be preserved." (Pope Pius XII) (6)
"Now many girls do not see anything wrong with following certain shameless styles (fashions) like so many sheep. They would surely blush if they could only guess the impressions they make and the feelings they evoke (arouse) in those who see them." (Pope Pius XII, 1954) (6)
“To say that ‘modesty is a matter of custom’ is just as wrong as to say that ‘honesty is a matter of custom.’” (Pope Pius XII) (1)
"Fashions will arise which will greatly offend God." (Our Lady of Fatima) (6)
I bring you all of this information to help you answer this: “What do we do?!” You could simply not go to public beaches or pools. Remember, good people abstained from these places for much of history. You would still be in the majority!
If you do find a place to swim that would not be proximate occasion of sin for you and your family, there are still modest options. For example, this swimsuit top and skirt combo meets all of the Marian standards!
I find it is always helpful to look at the whole of history when we feel convicted to take a moral stand that 99% of people will not do themselves. Though we be but a remnant now, rest assured we remain in good company.
Keep reading about modesty by checking out our post on male modesty. Check out our store to see our new product for girls to encourage modesty at a young age!
Sources & More Information
*some contain immodest photos*
If you are interested in reading more about modesty, it's history, and how to practice it, I highly recommend this book!