2023 | Solar Flair: Dressing for the Sun

Children's swimsuit

We block the sun…we soak up the sun. Our fickle relationship with sunlight is based on cultural mores and individual preference. This exhibition explores garments and accessories worn to protect and cool throughout the 20th and into the 21st century. Objects from the Goldstein Museum of Design’s collection will be used to explore commonly accepted associations between travel and sunlight, the varied and cultural acceptability of showing skin, and a brief history of fiber and design technologies that have guided changing perceptions of how we dress for the sun. 

Solar Flair: Dressing for the Sun

Exhibition dates: July 8 – October 14, 2023

Goldstein Gallery, McNeal Hall

Curated by Laureen Berlin-Gibson, PhD, Jean McElvain, PhD, and Sara Wilcox.

The delight of sunny days can bring mixed feelings when high humidity and spiking temperatures make us sweat, wheeze, and burn in the sun. Solar Flair: Dressing for the Sun looks at our fashionably adaptive approaches to beating the heat and basking in the sun. Some cultures manage the effects of heat and sunlight by wearing voluminous loose-fitting garments that offer full coverage, while other cultures leave as much skin exposed as possible.

The United States has wide diversity of cultural values that guide our individual relationship with sunlight. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tourism became increasingly accessible with destinations often centered around warm weather and water. Travelers aspired to dress fashionably as they lounged by the shore and sported in the sun, prompting questions about how much skin to show and how tan it should get.

Near the end of the 19th Century scientific links were made between sun exposure and skin cancer. This awareness coincided with increasing trends for days at the lake, lido decks, and sunbathing along the shore. While fashions from this time tended to provide full coverage, practicality and social change began to push against commonly accepted views on modesty. Advancements in fiber technology and manufacturing helped to ensure that dressing for the sun was part of everyday people’s lives.