The Swimsuit Issue
Aldersey-Williams, Hugh, New Statesman (1996)
If semioticians take holidays, then they should go with Sandals. The name isn't good - better suited to a Christian ramblers' club or a sociologists' support network than a declasse Club Med selling Caribbean vacations. But the advertisements shriek like parrots from the weekend papers in over-coloured compensation.
There are several versions. One is all too clearly designed to appeal to couples: the pool is filled with nuzzling, mating pairs; no woman is separated by more than a few centimetres from her man, but each pair is careful not to crowd nearby couples. For each couple there is a pair of brimming cocktail glasses to complete the improbable styling.
The others equally betray the idealising touch of an art director and an air-brush. I'm looking at one where a woman stands downstage fight, legs apart, her back to us, her head turned leftward into the page confidently surveying the horizon, glossy hair streaming out in the breeze.
Her swimsuit is hot pink, scooped to the small of the back and sportily strapped across the shoulder blades. It is cut high at the hip, in fact a little higher than she has been wearing until lately, to judge by the visible tan-line a couple of inches lower down on her leg. Whether this image is real or, more likely, a creation of PhotoShop software, the inference is clear: you, too, can reveal a little more of yourself on a carefree Sandals holiday.
But there is something else strange about the picture. The entire visible area of the costume is rendered (again with the help of some art-room tidying) in an even tone. There is no light and shade, no seams, no stretching, no sagging or clinging. There is in fact not the slightest suggestion that this woman's bottom has the contours bottoms normally have. She is as flat as a Klimt.
The swimsuit reveals and does not reveal. Although mentally pigeonholed with lingerie, it is very nearly the antithesis of underwear. The sight of underwear is transient, promising either removal or the addition of further cover. The swimsuit is a state of being, a constant as immovable as the wisp of gauze in paintings celebrated by Pete and Dud.
The very word oozes glamour. Indeed, it owes its usage to Miss America beauty pageants between the wars, which ruled that contestants must wear "swimsuits", rather than elaborate "sunbathing suits" which would never go near water and which were giving fashion houses undue sway in the competition.
Most designers now include swimwear in their collections, but Liza Bruce has made it her speciality. Although she grew up in California and Australia, Bruce chose these grey shores to ply her trade. "where swimsuits are an everyday thing, people have a very utilitarian view of the product," she remembers.
After 15 years with her own label, she opens her own store this week. "At the beginning I didn't know anything about swimwear, so I took references from clothing. I didn't like the cheesiness of the string bikini, so I tried to clean up swimwear and create something that wasn't about the quantity of flesh but the way you revealed it that was important. …