The Miss America pageant has always been just a step behind the zeitgeist when it comes to fashion.

When it began in 1921, Miss America contestants were expected to be beautiful, poised and modest, a standard that has been adjusted over the years to reflect more progressive ideals. However, because of its beginnings, conservative dress seems to be built into the very DNA of Miss America, though it may seem antithetical to say that a pageant that asks women to strip down and strut around a stage in a bikini is conservative.

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Because Miss America exists in a world of its own when it comes to fashion, trend-watching has always been a fascinating part of the pageant. Which dress will sparkle the brightest? Which neckline will plunge the lowest? Which swimsuit will hug the tightest? To give these questions some context, we’ve broken down Miss America fashion into two subsections: the classic and the controversial.

The classic: Crowning glory

Surprisingly, there’s not much to say about the evening gown portion of Miss America — the dresses have more or less always been glimmering, stunning examples of the style of time.

The changing aesthetic of the Miss America crown, however, tells a much more interesting story. The first crown ever bestowed upon a Miss America winner — Margaret Gorman in 1921 — was modeled to look like the headpiece worn by the Statue of Liberty.


Miss America Margaret Gorman, Sept. 6, 1922.

This clumsy design was replaced later in the 1920s by bulky crowns reminiscent of actual royalty. A far cry from the delicate tiaras most think of when they picture a pageant crown, these were thick and heavy, and accompanied by a scepter and robe to complete the regal look.

S12 Miss America Finale

Miss America 2017 Miss Arkansas Savvy Shields. Miss America finals, Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall, Sunday Sept. 11, 2016. (Ben Fogletto/Press of City)

In the 1940s we began to see thinner, more tiara-like crowns, made up of sparkling loops and circles. It wasn’t until the late ‘50s and ‘60s that the classic four-pointed model gained popularity. The Miss America foundation seemed to find a winner in this remodel, with its neat peaks and elegant curves. Though the intricacies of the crown changes from year to year, the actual shape hasn’t varied since, and Miss America has even made its silhouette the foundation’s logo, so recognizable is the design.

The controversial: Following suit

The swimsuit round may have been repackaged as “Lifestyle and Fitness,” but colloquially the somewhat controversial portion of the pageant is still called “Swimsuit.” And what a stir those swimsuits have caused!

We begin with the 1921 swimsuit — a getup so conservative it might even be work-place appropriate by today’s standards. A one-piece with a high neck and built-in skirt, the outfit was perfectly in-line with the high level of modesty expected from Miss America contestants.

Ironically, after a few years the swimsuit portion was shut down for being too risqué. It was reinstated in the ‘30s, and although a decade had passed, the bathing suits looked largely the same, with slightly lower necklines and somewhat clingier fabric. Strangely enough, in these early years the contestants were actually crowned in their swimwear, until the practice fell out of favor in 1946.

Look back at Miss America 1922

Miss America pageant 1922. Center is Miss America 1922, Miss Columbus Ohio Mary Katherine Campbell. On the right is the pageant’s first winner, Margaret Gorman.

Hemlines and necklines continued to inch closer and closer together, though two-pieces were still banned from the competition. The ‘70s and ‘80s saw more modern one-pieces, showing off more cleavage and curves.

Finally in 1997, 51 years after the bikini was invented, the two-piece ban was lifted, allowing the contestants to bear their toned midriffs, although the rules stated that their swimsuit bottoms had to fall no lower than an inch below their bellybutton. Many women still opted to go one-piece throughout the late ‘90s and early 2000s, but those who did don a bikini eventually began to ignore the one-inch-below-the-bellybutton rule.

Today, it’s incredibly uncommon for a contestant to rock a one-piece. After all, the entire point of the swimsuit section is to show off the incredible health (read: rock-hard abs) of the contestants. Certainly, we’ll not see any G-strings this year during Lifestyle and Fitness, nor anything over-the-top or flashy, although former Miss-A and judge this year Nina Davuluri did shake things up with a zebra-print number in 2013. The norm these days is a solid-colored bikini with fairly thick straps — swimwear that would ruffle no feathers at the beach today but perhaps have the founders of the Miss America competition rolling in their graves.

Tattoo hullabaloo

Although Theresa Vail, Miss Kansas 2014, didn’t take home the crown, she did provide the enduring story of the pageant that year. Vail shocked audiences by proudly showing off her tattoos: the insignia of the U.S. Army Dental Corps on her shoulder and the Serenity Prayer on her ribs.

Vail, a National Guard solider, amateur mechanic and hunter, was a rather unconventional contestant to begin with, and the reaction to her choice to not cover up her ink provides the perfect modern example of Miss America standards not quite matching up with contemporary thought. Many women, not to mention many Miss America contestants, have tattoos. So why the outrage?

Miss America 1 PRELIMS

Theresa Vail, Miss Kansas 2014

“My whole platform is empowering women to overcome stereotypes and break barriers. What a hypocrite I would be if I covered my ink,” Vail said to People Magazine. “How can I tell other women to be fearless and true to themselves if I can’t do the same? I am who I am, tattoos and all.”

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