This week the Miss America Organization announced they were dropping the swimsuit competition—the main component of the first Miss America pageant—from future contests.
While all eyes are now on the scholarship organization and the authenticity of its stand to prioritize “ambition” and “talent” over looks come fall, the controversial legacy of beauty pageants dates as far back to the contest’s first iteration in 1854. P.T. Barnum (of Ringling Bros. and Bailey fame) attempted and failed to launch an event that year at his museum in New York City that judged women based on appearance. The contest would have been a risqué addition to a series that included dogs and babies. Public protests in anticipation of the event forced Barnum to change the contest to critiquing photos of women’s smiles instead—no parades of bare legs allowed.
Newspapers then adopted Barnum’s idea by running photo popularity contests featuring local women, which led to a wave of women’s faces and bodies in print advertisements. Among the most memorable products of this new era of female representation was the Gibson Girl, an illustration of a woman who was beautiful, independent and educated. The Gibson Girl was considered the ideal lady, according to 1890s values, says Hilary Levey Friedman, a sociology professor at Brown University and author of an upcoming book on the history of pageants.
By the early 1900s, advertising strategies had expanded to featuring real women posing on stage in bathing suits (not “swimsuits” just yet, because that evoked athletic endeavors) to attract tourism past Labor Day, the traditional end of beach season. This practice led to the first Inter-City Beauty pageant, held in 1921 in Atlantic City. The debut event starred women who had won their respective newspaper contests. Sixteen-year-old Margaret Gorman received the winner’s trophy while still in her water-friendly attire. Initially her title was “The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America,” but it was shortened to Miss America the next year.
Throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s, participants were mostly lower-class women, in part because aspects of the pageant appealed to models and dancers, taboo careers for the wealthy, says Kimberly Hamlin, a history professor at Miami University. But as decreased working hours ushered in a new culture of leisure in the United States, pageants began to highlight recreation and “swimsuits” with Miss America officially making the semantic switch in 1946. From then on, pageants were no longer displaying “wanton women” in their intimate “bathing” clothes, but instead praised “the all-American girl,” says Elwood Watson, author of There She Is, Miss America: The Politics of Sex, Beauty and Race in America’s Most Famous Pageant.
Miss America 1947, Barbara Jo Walker, was the last to be crowned in a swimsuit. While the swimsuit competition remained in the pageant, the clothing worn during official crowning changed to evening gowns in 1948, after “intellect and personality” were officially added to the judging ballot.
The swimsuit competition became more popular as the styles of the clothing, itself, evolved. Bloomers with tunics dominated beaches in the early 20th century until many women, inspired by their post-Victorian rights, began advocating for practical swimwear that didn’t literally weigh them down. A more form-fitting and revealing style called the Annette Kellerman, named for the first woman to swim the English Channel, took off. And of course, these suits also made for more titillating pageants.
While the 1960s brought the rise of bikinis, they weren’t a Miss America-approved style until 1997. And even in 2017, wearing one came with stipulations (for example, no thongs).
Like most decades-old institutions, the pageant can be slow to adjust to cultural shifts, and it’s still defined by contradictions, says Levey Friedman. The swimsuit competition was renamed the “Lifestyle and Fitness” segment in 2001 to supposedly highlight the physical ability of the competitors. In 1993, Miss America’s former chief executive Leonard Horn publicly referred to swimsuits as the organization’s “Achilles’ heel.” But four years later, he allowed bikinis, insisting they’d make the competition feel “fresh” and that it was “not a ploy to boost ratings.”
According to Gretchen Carlson, the new head of the board of the Miss America Organization, ditching swimsuits and calling the event a “competition,” not a pageant, will encourage more women to participate.