| Skylar Black

A Short History of Swimwear Through the Centuries


Swimwear Fashion Through the Ages


Right now, the most significant trends in swimsuit fashion are inspired by the past. We’re seeing adorable prints inspired by the 80s and 90s, sleek one-pieces that could come straight out of Baywatch, and even high-waisted bottoms that wouldn’t look out of place on a 1940s pin-up girl. With all of this nostalgia in the air, it’s hard not to wonder about the history of swimwear fashion.

The bathing suit is one of the few garments that can be used as a benchmark for human history - swimming and bathing have been two of the most regulated activities for women for centuries. The garments that these activities were performed in reflect attitudes towards leisure, sport, and modesty. The history of bathing suits can also be interpreted as a history of women’s liberation and control over their own bodies. From the stiff bathing gowns of the 1800s to the revolution of the bikini in 1946, here’s a short history of swimsuits for women through the centuries.

Au Natural - Ancient Rome

Ancient bathing practices in Rome (and beyond) were relatively simple. Swimming for pleasure wasn’t common, even in coastal areas. However, bathing was a widespread practice, with luxurious bathhouses (called thermae) being constructed by each emperor as part of their reign. Bathing was an important social activity, but most people didn’t put much thought into what they were wearing while doing it.

Bathing was typically done privately in one’s own home or gender-segregated bathhouses, so most bathers would simply go nude. If a woman was concerned about her modesty, she might have gone to bathe in a simple strapless bandeau and briefs. Coverups made from linen were used when not in the water.

The Age of Linen - the Middle Ages - 18th Century

Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the early 18th century, swimming and bathing fell out of favour with most European civilizations. This was caused by a complex mix of religious and social factors, but there are a few prominent reasons for this shift in thought. One was the Christian reaction to the prevalence of bathing rituals in Judaism and Islam.

At the time, European Christianity heavily featured ascetic practices such as denying oneself food, shelter, and pleasure in the name of God. Bathing fell into the latter category, and many Christians refused to bathe more than once or twice a year, if at all.

The other culprit was the Black Plague, which raged through Europe and surrounding areas from the mid-1300s well into the 1500s. Because of the medical knowledge (or lack thereof) at the time, many believed that bathing would make you vulnerable to the plague. Thus, the practice of bathing ceased almost entirely. People would wear linen undergarments in its place, believing that changing these undergarments was essentially the same as washing oneself. (If you’re curious about more details of this period in history, we highly recommend The Dirt on Clean by Katherine Ashenburg!)

Of course, this period lacked any progress in the swimwear department due to this mix of factors.

Bathing Costumes - 18th-century Europe

The beginning of the modern history of swimwear fashion came into being in the 18th century. At the time, one of the most prominent social doctrines for women was modesty. Womens’ bodies were heavily policed in all areas of life; even in the most private spheres, they were expected to keep their bodies hidden.

However, the Industrial Revolution had brought improvements in transportation such as railroads, and going to the beach had become a popular recreational activity. Seawater was thought to have incredible health benefits, and families flocked to the coasts to partake.

The clash between the culture of extreme modesty and the desire to swim recreationally eventually resulted in the invention of swimsuits for women called bathing costumes. These garments were long dresses that often had sleeves; sometimes, women would even wear long stockings underneath. They were cut to be so large that they would float away from women’s bodies when submerged, obscuring their shape.

Bathing costumes were typically made from flannel, canvas, or wool. These materials were far too heavy for anything other than simply wading into the shallows, but importantly, they would not be transparent when they got wet. And if being made from these very heavy fabrics wasn’t enough, some bathing costumes even had weights in the hem to ensure that they wouldn’t flash any skin while the wearer swam!

If you were wondering what men would be wearing while enjoying the seaside at this time, you might be surprised to learn that there were no bathing suits created for men in this early period. Men at the seaside would typically enjoy swimming in their undergarments or simply in the nude as their ancestors had.

If a Victorian lady didn’t want to endure wading around in an outfit like this, then she could invest in a bathing machine. These were small structures on wheels that could be dragged into shallow waters. Being inside the machine offered a woman complete privacy, allowing them to remove heavier components of their bathing costumes or simply splash around in their undergarments.

Unfortunately, it would have been a lonely experience, and most women couldn’t afford such a luxury. Thus, the bathing costume was the only option for swimsuits for women. Swimming was deemed a healthy pursuit during this period, but one wonders how much swimming a woman could do while wearing such a heavy, restrictive garment.

Bloomer Swimsuits - 18th century - 19th century

By the mid-1800s, traditional bathing gowns were beginning to fall out of favour - they were heavy and restrictive, and the attitudes about women’s fashion shifted towards creating more practical garments. Bloomer swimsuits for women were a reflection of this shift.

Bloomer swimsuits had shorter full shirts worn over a pair of short trousers called bloomers (named for the prominent suffragette and women’s fashion activist Amelia Bloomer). These legs would cinch at the ankles to remain in place. They were still made from heavy fabric and were impractical in the water, but they were an improvement, and they quickly gained popularity.

Despite their similarities with traditional bathing gowns, bloomer swimsuits were still controversial with conservative traditionalists because of the trouser-like design of the underlying garment. Trousers were still reserved strictly for men at the time, and anything similar in women’s fashion was scorned and ridiculed.

The trend couldn’t be stopped, though. “Later-bloomer” suits came into the frame in the early 19th century. These were similar to the bloomer swimsuit, but they were made from lighter fabrics such as cotton and cut higher on the leg, closer to the mid-thigh.

The One-Piece - early 20th century

The one-piece bathing suit was influenced by the sports craze that had swept the globe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Events such as the first modern Olympic games in 1896 had transformed swimming from a recreational activity into a serious sport for the first time, and swimsuits for women began to reflect this shift. In general, we owe sports for changing the history of swimwear fashion.

Before the one-piece sports swimsuit was a widely accepted garment for women, an Australian swimmer and actress named Annette Kellerman developed her own competitive bathing suit. It resembled the kind of suit that a man would have worn at the time; it covered her from her shoulders to her toes, but it was more form-fitting to give her the potential for more speed in the water. It might have looked tame by our standards (it most certainly wasn’t a bikini), but it was one of the most revealing swimsuits of all time at the time.

The original suit featured stockings that completely covered her legs, but Kellerman would eventually remove this piece, reverting to shorts that fell above her knees. This version of her bathing suit got her arrested on Revere Beach in Boston in 1907 for indecency. Eventually, the judge in the case agreed that her design would help her in a competitive sense and allowed her to wear it as long as she wore a full-length cape while walking to the water’s edge.

For a woman who swam the English Channel, broke two world records in swimming that still stand unbeaten today, and was hailed as “The Perfect Woman” after a Harvard professor compared her measurements to those of the Venus de Milo, it seemed a bit silly, but Kellerman didn’t care. She had won.

Many women began following Kellerman’s lead despite the backlash, and the fashion industry began producing more form-fitting one-piece bathing suits. As it started moving from the world of sports into the world of leisure, these bathing suits evolved stylistically to reflect the fun sense of fashion that was emerging in the 20s and 30s.

Embellishments like ruffles, slimmer straps, and even pockets would be added, allowing women to express themselves while at the beach. The fabrics swimsuits were made of were also changing - while cotton remained the most common material used until the 1960s, higher-end one-pieces were starting to take advantage of sleeker materials such as nylon, which was invented in 1935.

This period wasn’t just a shift in the style of swimsuits for women - it was a shift in attitudes towards them. Hollywood and women’s fashion magazines such as Vogue had started turning swimwear into an industry that was sexy and glamorous, a movement that would only be solidified by the pulp pinups that emerged during both World Wars.

Unfortunately, despite all of these advancements, women weren’t free to make all of the decisions about their bodies just yet. Women who frequented the beach in the 20s and all the way into the 40s were often under the watchful eye of “swimsuit police”. These individuals were responsible for enforcing public modesty and would literally measure the length of women’s swimsuits at beaches. Notably, most of the individuals chosen for this position were men.

The Bikini - 1946

Before 1946, two-piece bathing suits did exist. The years leading up to WWII and the increasing demand for pinups had created a particular style of bathing suit that was mildly risque while still mostly adhering to the conventions of modesty at the time. The bottoms of the 1940s two-piece were high-waisted, covering a woman’s navel while still leaving a sliver of midriff visible. They were also styled like shorts, covering a woman’s hips down to the tops of her thighs. This was the standard style for two-piece bathing suits until a Paris fashion designer named Louis Réard invented the bikini in 1946.

Réard decided to name his invention after the Bikini Atoll Islands, which had recently become a nuclear testing site. He would later explain that he chose the name because he believed his invention would be just as shocking as a nuclear bomb. And he was right!

The original bikini was daring - Réard threw out most of the conventions of the two-piece that were accepted at the time. The waistline was significantly lower, sitting below the navel, and it revealed the entirety of a woman’s legs, offering coverage in only the most important spot. The top was held up by nothing but thin straps, and it didn’t feature any knots or extra fabric to differentiate it from a bra. In short, it was explosive!

The design was so shocking at the time Réard revealed it that he couldn’t find any fashion models who would dare be seen in it. He ended up hiring a Parisian showgirl named Micheline Bernardini to model the garment for him. Beyond its obvious intention to push the limits of women’s fashion, the design was also controversial because it was made entirely for leisure. There were no arguments that could be made about his design making an athlete faster in the water - it was designed for normal women having a day at the beach, prioritizing their tastes and sense of fun over any and all modesty laws in place at the time.

It took a while for the bikini to catch on, but eventually, it would find its way onto some of Hollywood’s favourite starlets, including Rita Hayworth and Annette Funicello. Women in bikinis began appearing in magazine spreads worldwide. The bikini became the new fashion craze, and the design benefited from the invention of newer, stretchier materials that would make them more durable in the water.

Again, cotton twill was the most common bathing suit material until the mid-1960s, but materials like nylon and latex were quickly outshining it. Once swimmers embraced the racy nature of the bikini, they never looked back. The history of swimwear fashion had changed forever.

Today

Swimwear hasn’t changed much since Louis Réard brought us the bikini in 1946. There have been a few attempts to go further - an Austrian-American designer named Rudi Gernreich created the “monokini” in 1964. This garment was nothing but a pair of high-waisted shorts and a strap extending around the wearer’s neck, leaving her chest completely exposed. The piece was racy and daring, and you can still buy them from a few fashion brands, but the monokini never took off as much as the bikini did.

Swimwear has also become part of pop-culture iconography. You can’t don a red one-piece without thinking of Pamela Anderson in Baywatch, and we’re all familiar with the metal bikini Princess Leia sported in Return of the Jedi (1983). Yet another more modern cultural development is swimwear photography, which started in the middle of the 20th century. To this day, Sports Illustrated has been known for its extensive swimsuit spreads of various female athletes.

As we shop through cute 70s inspired bikinis or grab a groovy tie-dye kaftan in preparation for winter break, take a second to think back on how far swimwear has come. Before us, thousands of women fought for our right to wear whatever we want - honour them and embrace your own personal style.

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