Swimming has always been a popular pastime, but it has been popular for longer than you may think. Despite the modesty of some of our more prudish ancestors people have been swimming for recreation for centuries. In the southwest of Egypt there are cave paintings that depict people enjoying the water in what has been referred to as ‘the cave of Swimmers’, there has also been found an ancient clay tablet that is believed to depict swimmers who appear to be performing the front crawl. Both the ancient Greeks and the Ancient Romans enjoyed the water and there is a quote attributed to Plato that remarks on how people who lacked the ability to swim were probably not very well-educated. Despite the popularity of the water the ancient Olympic Games did not feature any water based activities. The only difference between swimming for recreation then and now is that now our modesty prohibits us from swimming together in the nude.
The Dirty Middle Ages
Swimming and a general enjoyment of the water was not something that was popular during the Middle Ages, this was the time when many people believed that illness and infection was carried in the water and would be absorbed into the body. Bathing for the sake of being clean was not too popular either, however it was generally agreed that knights of the realm should be able to swim, and in armour too. Diseases like the Black Death brought the general lack of hygiene to the fore and public perceptions began to change, bathing both in private and public was then performed in undergarments or in the nude.
Bring on the Spas
Spas started to spring up during the 18th and 19th centuries, which produced a revival in the popularity of swimming for pleasure, but brought increased modesty along with it. Days of swimming in the nude were gone and now everyone was covered up from neck to ankle in bathing attire that was considered ‘decent’, there were even small weights sewn into the hems of the ladies bathing dresses so that they did not billow up around them in the water, heaven forbid that their legs should be exposed. Things lightened up a little during the Victorian period when these cumbersome bathing dresses gave way to two piece bathing suits, which involved bloomers and long sleeves. Men too were required to cover up and wore one piece swim suits that covered both their arms and their legs. Not that men and women were allowed to bathe/swim together though, that would never do.
With the change in modesty that the modern era brought with it swimming attire has undergone something of a revolution, since around 1940 swimsuits have become smaller and smaller until bikinis have as much substance to them as dental floss and men’s trunks being generally referred to as budge smugglers, and the mankini, well that defies the description. Just how much longer will it be before we are all back bathing in the nude again?
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