Coco Chanel, with her sunburned face and sporty clothes, started the fashion for tanning, which became a tribal rite of the yacht and jet sets until mass travel enabled everyone to fly off on summer vacations and the tan lost its snob value. With hindsight, the 1920's concept of "going native" now seems class-ridden, patronizing, even uncomfortably racist. In his fashion memoir "The Glass of Fashion," Cecil Beaton described Baba, the Princesse de Faucingy-Lucinge, as "looking rather like an Arab urchin." Playing up her dusky skin, the socialite "would wear a tarboosh, or pillbox monkey hats, and pinned bunches of jeweled grapes to her bathing suit."
The high-water mark of exposure was the topless swimsuit introduced by the designer Rudi Gernreich in 1964. The swimsuit, suspended from two halter straps in the cleavage of bared breasts, brought out all the Puritan fury and fervor of Americans, who have never accepted it for the beach (although allowing the sexes equal exposure above the waist has periodically been raised as a feminist issue).
Peggy Moffitt, the original model for the infamous suit, said it was a logical evolution of Gernreich's avant-garde ideas in swimwear design as much as a scandalous symbol of the Permissive Society.
"It was prophetic," said Ms. Moffitt, who now lives in California with her husband, the fashion photographer William Claxton. "It had to do with more than what to wear to the beach. It was about a changing culture throughout all society, about freedom and emancipation. It was also a reaction against something particularly American: the little boy snickering that women had breasts."
Woman on the beach as sex object has been part of the evolution of swimwear. The Cannes Film Festival, held on the French Riviera each May, is a reminder of the days when a starlet was as big as her swimsuit was brief. Esther Williams, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot all used the swimsuit as a career prop to their sex appeal, and when Madonna made an appearance at Cannes in 1991 in pointed bra and corset, she was tilting at a sexist society.
As the wave of female sexuality on the beach recedes, the peacock male has become the new sex symbol, as in Gianni Versace's ads with their heroic depictions of Miami bathers. Swimsuits shown in recent men's wear collections by Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana or Paul Smith have tended to be black and snug fitting, throwbacks to the designs of the 1930's and '40s. They are in contrast to popular, sports-inspired beach wear: bright and baggy Bermudas or boxer shorts.
The Greek designer Nikos Apostolopoulos put a different spin on the collection he showed during the July French men's wear shows. His bathing suits (for both sexes, but with the focus on the male) are anatomical creations, cut and stitched to outline the body and its sexual characteristics.
"A lot of people who are doing underwear and swimwear either make it very serious, or make a man look like a gay," he said. "My symbol is a real man, the Greek man, who went to bed with a woman or a man and was free -- a man who developed his intelligence and his body."
Ancient Greece of 2,500 years ago was the last period, before this century, when men (and even women) were willing to put their healthy minds and healthy bodies on display. The 20th century, from the days of Edwardian bathing machine onward, can be seen as a struggle to recreate an era when bared flesh was no longer associated with shame and sin. But having at last found a place in the sun, it may now be time to seek out the shade.