Bathing Suit-itis ~ Yes, they were made of wool. Yes.

       And this unused suit is for sale on the Internet for one hundred dollars! My goodness!

Vienna is, like so many of the world’s capital cities, unique. My immediate family was enamored with the song this enchanted part of Austria sang to them. It was a melody which never left their hearts or minds. To the very end, despite the discordant noises of fate visited upon these good people during the First and Second World Wars and the nightmarish aftermath, it existed in their consciousness and sub consciousness.

                After World War I ended, my grandparents overcame family tragedies and almost mythical hardships to develop an economic niche in the city of Johann Strauss. Through almost unbelievable focus and hard work, both sets of my parents’ families were able to achieve prosperity, and rose high in the ranks of the upper middle class. “Yes, we work hard,” they often said. “However, we unabashedly play hard in our leisure time.”

 Both my parents’ families were athletic and active, and after my parents’ marriage in 1933, the two sides coalesced for vacation trips which continuously took them within the borders of Austria, as well as to their homelands of Poland,Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. In addition,Italy, Switzerland, and France afforded them playgrounds for skiing, swimming, gymnastics, and tennis. Both sides of the family owned summer homes Klosterneuburg, a small farming community which becameVienna’s summer water vacation haven on the shores of the Danube. Albums of black and white photographs chronicled their journeys. Some albums still survive today.

                “Our family,” as Oma Mausi, my father’s mother, explained to a visitor, “plays hard. In Klosterneuburg we grow vegetables, plant orchards, and,” pausing dramatically, “become gourmet cooks with the berries and fruits we grow. In Vienna we go to the baths where on does not wear bathing wear. During winter skiing trips abroad, we soak in hot tubs. And, in Klosterneuburg we swim in the Danube.”

                “Work keeps us prosperous,” said my Oma Feld, smiling, “and play inspires us to work! Swimming nude in the Danube is the reward of our hard work. Rivers are not meant for bathing suits. Only the sea can sometimes claim that privilege.” She would pause a moment, smile, and then finish her sentence, “Of course, if there wasn’t so much mud on the banks …” Her voice trailed off, and she made motions of throwing buckets of water over her head. We all agreed.

                Little did we realize the repercussions of those remarks.

                When my parents and I first settled in on the banks of the Hudson River in New York City, in 1938, we were all delighted. There was no mud! Every half mile or so, small natural sandy beaches, not more than fifty feet long and fifteen or so feet wide, were formed by the mighty river’s currents. In the lower river, closer to the center of Manhattan, the water was somewhat salty when the ocean intruded during high tides. The beaches were littered and often next to huge storm drains. However, as one approached the streets above Grant’s Tomb, the tides no longer  were felt. Further north on the great river, stretching to the shores of the Tappan Zee, the beaches were there. In the city, however, on summer afternoons, my parents and I would find a beach within walking distance, and without other visitors. For sever hours, we would splash and swim … without, of course, bathing suits. When the two and three mile long freight trains went by, on tracks thirty feet higher than the beaches, we would enthusiastically wave to the engineers. The men would laugh uproariously, and, just as enthusiastically wave back.           

Eventually, during our second summer in New York City, I told my beloved TanteMaliabout the train engineers, and how jubilantly they would wave back at us. Tante Mali thus discovered where – and how – we were swimming. She and her grown children were shocked. “You cannot go swimming in the nude in the midst of New York City! You will get arrested!” She actually screamed. Please realize that Tante Mali never raised her voice, no matter how agitated she was.

My father grinned. “Apparently there is, indeed, an exception to my aunt’s rule.”

Tante Mali, Blanche, and Joe glared at him and emphasized their displeasure.  Imperiously, she took a deep breath. She intoned, in her normal regal tone of voice, “You will wear bathing suits. Nude swimming in the Hudson! This is not the old country.”

So, at a time of painful adjusting to the morés of the New World, we had one more adjustment to make: wearing bathing suits to swim in a river.

In those days, men wore one piece bathing suits of finely knit wool. The sleeveless upper part was skin tight and chastely covered only chest nipples and back ripples. The equally tight lower part, sometimes reaching to above the knees, showed the wearer’s treasures to the world. Cups in those days, were large and bulky. The cups were not modest, as they drew the attention to the onlooker.

Until the late thirties, most females in the United States still wore long-sleeved swimming dresses – with ruffles – which deluged the sands with gallons of water when the swimmer came ashore. Refugees from Europe quickly changed the fashion trends. My parents and grandparents, like so many other immigrants, were sophisticated, and refused to consider the American Option. Instead, the women of our family wore two piece Jantzen bathing suits, knit of wool. There was no built-in support system – whatever The Good Lord endowed us with was shown to the world, especially when the suit was wet and stretched out to double its size. Body parts regularly popped up or out or down. We were fatalistic, as were bystanders. General etiquette dictated those around us casually looking at clouds, waters, birds, or lunch baskets. And of course, we returned the favor.

To prevent this overflowing goodness from happening, the women would buy a suit one or two sizes too small and hope for the best. So, as the material dried, it shrank back into its original size and shape, causing pain, skin irritation, and the Jantzen Waddle, so called from where body parts rubbed together. Beaches and sand exacerbated the irritations. That photograph, by the way, is the very style worn by my mother, Oma Feld, and myself. Oma Mausi never swam in public.  I look at the mannequin’s upper thighs, and wince in pain.

Both men and women soon learned about the horrific pain which resulted around joints and contact points’ surrounding skin from sitting on the sand which stuck to and in a wet, wool bathing suit. Not even outdoor showers could rinse off the sand grains embedded in the skin! In the York City area, most people did not have automobiles, so beaches were reached by riding the subways for an hour or longer. Going there was not a problem, but coming home, especially when sunburned, was a torture invented by the Inquisition. Incidentally, the “cure” for sunburn was beaten egg white applied liberally to the affected areas. It preventing blistering. Six decades later, my “reward” for those sunburns is skin cancer!

Consequently, we wore skirts to the beach, and learned to remove our bathing suits whilst fully clothed in order to prevent anguish. Everyone in our group would hold a circle of towels about a foot away from the changeling to preserve modesty. To this day, I can still slip into a bra under regular clothing. I may look like a bear cub encased in a capture sack, but I can do it. The lifelong habit of hooking my bra in front and then sliding it around and hooking my arms through was learned during my youth.

Every once in a while, we would return from our bathing suit induced tortures, and my father would shake his head, and sadly say, “I cannot believe Americans and their bathing suit fetish.”      

Silk, cotton, and artificial fiber bathing suits were a welcome revolution.

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