Fashion-orientated depictions of swimming primarily focus on appearance. Swimwear histories and the annual beachwear magazine features alike, discuss the shapes of swimming garments and how the exposed body should look or has looked over time. Appearing before strangers wearing nothing but a few choicely-positioned fig-leaves is certainly an important aspect of the swimming experience, but once you enter the water, other considerations come into play: will the suit cling acutely, forming a seal-like second skin, float buoyantly around you or threaten to leave you altogether?
Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies, a memoir of her swimming experience both as a trainee Olympian and later as a recreational swimmer begins to answer some of these questions as she elaborates upon the sensory aspects of swimming and swimwear. She recounts how the water feels against her skin, hair and muscles, and considers how its variable temperature, smell, colour and parameters vary with each aquatic encounter.
Each swimming experience is synaesthetic, where the look of the water influences the feeling and vice-versa: for example, the Olympium pool in Etobicoke, Canada is ‘blue’, ‘hums in the mornings’ and is of a scale ‘amplified by the density of chlorinated air over the water’s surface’. The pure blue colour and chlorine smell preside over an atmosphere of concentrated swimming ambition. Subsequently, the bodies that enter the pool reflect its streamlined, utilitarian purpose. Conversely, the seawater at the women’s swimming pavilion at Saltsjöbadens Friluftsbad in the Stockholm Archipelago, where clothing is optional, appeared ‘a beautiful olive-green colour, turning (Shapton’s) skin ochre beneath the waves’ and tasted ‘only mildly saline’. The experience of swimming nude amongst other women was one of ‘indifferent animality… as though in our polite blankness we are brushing up against one another, our furs , our similarities’. Here, the water’s olive waves transfigure the women’s forms, both in terms of appearance and sensation, and indicate a natural, non-competitive realm, where bodies are free from scrutiny.
Shapton’s book also features black and white photographs of her swimwear collection, modelled by white, headless linen mannequins. She describes how one high-necked black Speedo, ‘used for training, 1988-1992’, was ‘made of nylon, more durable and less flexible than Lycra’ and worn doubled up with other suits in order to provide extra weight and ‘drag’. Shapton compared the team’s uniform mentality to their extra suits to that of a ballet company because ‘we’d roll them down wet after warm-up, as ballerinas roll legwarmers up over their knees and then down around their ankles.’ While Shapton’s competitive swimwear was exposed to the shared, routine experiences of a team, her often vintage, recreational swimwear, which hangs shapelessly from the mannequins, acquired personal associations. She reproached one vintage Cole of California, brown zebra-stripe full piece for being ‘slightly too short in the waist’ despite its pattern’s promise to transform the wearer into the zebra-fish it resembled, and recounted that a whimsical Vintage Charmant mustard-yellow and white polka-dot bikini was worn to host a suitably retro pool party ‘where guests played Bananagrams, croquet and Catchphrase’.
Shapton demonstrates how swimming is always an occasion because one leaves behind one’s terrestrial habits and gains ‘knowledge of watery space, being able to sense exactly where my body is and what it’s affecting, an animal empathy for contact with another element.’ Thus, each entry into the water, whether competitively in a team, or recreationally, is ripe for memory-making. Our swimming costumes, and how they transform in the water, become part of our aquatic beings. As we move through the water, we notice that racing stripes are the image of speed, or the ruffle around our bikini resembles a gill. We remember these garments not merely by how they appear dry, but by how they perform when wet.
Leanne Shapton, Swimming Studies (London: Penguin Books, 2012).