| Victoria Zurakowski
Bathing Suits Through History
Bathing suits, swimsuits, bathers, togs... What's the difference? You might be busy Googling away, trying to find the answer, but the truth is - there isn't one. These words pretty much all mean the same thing...
So why all the names? Why the confusion?
And why is a bathing suit called a bathing suit when we wear them for swimming and not washing?
And what's a swimsuit?
Ugh! The mind boggles!
There's a story. History buffs read on.
Bathing Suits Through History
Swimwear for women isn't a new phenomenon. All you have to do is visit Sicily's Villa Romana del Casale, which dates to the 4th century, to see the bathing bandeau clad Bellas frolicking across the mosaic tiles for proof.
Today the term bathing suit is used more in the US, but its roots lay in 18th century Bath, a historical spa city in England.
Until the 18th century in England and many other parts of Europe, the act of bathing was a private affair. Because of the heavy Christian influences, many people saw bathing anywhere other than home as immoral and taboo. It was a stark contrast to many Islamic nations, where public bathing was part of everyday life and considered part of the culture. The Turkish Ottoman Empire is a good case in point - it was, and still is, considered normal to bathe naked with strangers.
If you've ever visited Turkey and had a Hamman (Turkish bathhouse) experience, you'll be fully aware of the Hamman washing process where there are no bathing suits in sight. Instead, you'll be led into the public (single sex) bathhouse by a personal attendant and washed, scrubbed and massaged in front of many other women undergoing the same treatment.
Despite popular belief, bathhouses in England date back much further than one would imagine. Between 60-70AD, during the early years of Roman Britain, Roman bathhouses appeared in a quaint Roman settlement. The Romans built a large temple on the site Aquae Sulis. Today we call that town Bath.
It wasn't until the 18th century that bathing publicly became popular among the English. The underwater natural spring waters of the former Aquae Sulis were used for beautifying and therapeutic purposes. These baths attracted the rich and famous - the well-to-do, especially women, who were, like many women today, looking for the fountain of youth. It was even believed that the literary great, Jane Austen, used to spend many days frequenting the bathhouses in Bath and noting down her experiences in her diaries.
Unlike their Turkish counterparts, however, English women immersed themselves into the water almost fully clothed due to the strong Christian influences at the time. A traditional bathing suit consisted of a long, oversized woollen dress with sleeves that floated on the water. The very modest bathing attire often included long SOCKS!
And with that, bathing suits were born.
While bathing suits originated in the UK, it didn't take long for the word to hit the shores of the US thanks to the American English ties. With the first bathing suit for women came a host of other words in the same lexical field, including bath salts and bath towels.
So, the word bathing makes sense, but what about the suits bit?
The original bathing suit consisted of matching pieces; therefore, it can be likened to an office twinset, hence the name. Despite the wide variety of women's bathing suits and men's bathing suits today consisting of different styles that can be easily mixed and matched, the term bathing suit (or bathing costume) has stuck.
Today, there are many more lexeis that can refer to what you wear in the water when swimming, but these terms are often used interchangeably. One moment you could be looking for your favourite bathing suit, and in the next breath, you could be asking your friend about their opinion of your swimsuit.
This interchangeability is the nature of the English language. We tend to do this with many words without even realising it. However, there are some subtle differences as well.
Swimsuits, for example, are exclusively used for women. They refer to any clothing made for water and sun activities such as surfing, swimming, diving, snorkelling, and sunbathing. In a nutshell, swimsuits are women's bathing suits.
But this is where it gets a little more nitty-gritty. While swimsuits are solely for females, bathing suits (often referred to as bathers) is a gender-neutral term; therefore, there are such things as men's bathing suits in addition to women's bathing suits.
Then we've got swimming trunks. Swimming trunks, swimming shorts, and men's bathing suits are all the same - they're shorts made for swimming and other water activities. But be warned - if the swimming trunks are longer than average, they become known as board shorts.
The word swimwear, like bathing suits, is also gender-neutral. In a nutshell, swimwear is the umbrella term in which everything else falls, including all those extra swimwear-related words like two-pieces, bikinis, one-pieces, and tankinis...the list goes on.
And then, of course, you've got all the global variations. Today, Americans commonly use the term bathing suits. The Brits call them swimsuits. But what about our friends Down Under in Australia and New Zealand? Since things are slightly topsy turvy there anyway, the Aussies and Kiwis have a different name they use - togs.
While togs might not bear an obvious connection to swimwear, the word is defined as clothing for a particular occasion. For example, there are gardening togs (clothes used specifically for gardening). There are also swimming togs (clothes used specifically for swimming). Naturally, over time, this has been shortened to togs.
Whatever you call your bathing suits, it doesn't matter. Most terms are interchangeable, so don't worry - you can't really go wrong! And if you do, most people will know what you're referring to if you happen to say, "women's bathing suit" somewhere instead of saying "swimsuit".