The History of Swimwear

by Karen

The History of Swimwear

Fashion has changed significantly since the Victorian Era, but perhaps no garment has gone through a more dramatic transformation than the swimsuit. In just over 100 years, the swimsuit has gone from long, billowing gowns to barely-there bikinis that leave little to the imagination. This drastic change is of course due to shifting mindsets about women’s rights and political freedoms. From modest to micro-mini, here is an in-depth look of history of swimwear throughout the decades.


The 1800s

Travelling to beaches became popular leisure activity in the 1800s. A day at the beach in Victorian times, however, looked far different that it does today. Victorian people were decidedly modest, and this modesty impacted the way women dressed even when strolling on the beach or swimming in the ocean. In the earlier parts of the 19th century, swimming suits were referred to as “Seaside Walking Dresses.” These special long-sleeved gowns were made of light colored muslin and featured layers of fabric that were meant to keep a woman’s skin safe from the sun so that it could maintain a porcelain white appearance. These dresses were often accompanied by accessories like bonnets, gloves, and scarves. Women even sewed weights into the hems of their bathing costumes so that they wouldn’t float to the surface when they ventured into the water for a dip. After the Civil War, the outfits women wore to the beach began to change slightly. The creation of the railroad system allowed people to travel farther distances faster than ever had before. Because swimming was becoming a more popular pastime, women needed clothing that was better suited for the water. In the 1860s and 1870s, bathing dresses were still incredibly modest. These new styles, however, featured a relatively brand new invention - the bloomer. These looks paired puffy pants with long-sleeved tunic dresses made of heavy flannel. While they were no doubt still cumbersome, they were easier to wear in the water than the gowns that were popular in the earlier parts of the 1800s.

The Early 1900s

As the 20th century began, cultural norms and ideas were starting to shift away from the modest Victorian mindset. This can easily be seen when looking at ladies swimsuits, which were starting to become a bit lighter and more fashion-forward. Finally, it became appropriate for women to wear short sleeves when lounging on the shore. While their arms may have been free, these looks still came complete with several heavy layers. Swimming costumes during this era consisted of black knee-length made of wool. These were once again paired with calf-length or ankle-length bloomers. While swimwear was still decidedly modest, it was starting to become a bit more interesting. These swimming dresses were often adorned with ribbons, bows, and nautical-inspired design details. Women also paired these swimming dresses with long stockings, belts, and coordinating hair accessories. Lace-up boots were also an important component of swimwear during this time. While they seem impractical by modern standards, this footwear helped protect a woman’s delicate feet from the sharp rocks and pebbles that covered the shoreline.

The 1910s

World War One and the industrial revolution changed the landscape of the world during the early parts of the 1900s. As cultural norms changed, so too did swimwear. Heavy, burdensome swimming dresses that featured multiple layers of heavy wool were no longer appropriate. Women wanted something that allowed them to move around with ease, and it was during the 1910s that their wish was granted. Swimming suits from the early part of this decade are decidedly more form-fitting. While they still included bloomers, the top consisted of a sleeveless blouse rather than a heavy tunic or dress. It was the first time in history that women were allowed to show off their curves while taking to the water. Another cultural shift that effected the way swimsuits looked was the rise of women athletes. Notably, an Australian woman named Annette Kellerman made it her mission to ensure that women’s swimwear was more comfortable and easier to move in. During her multiple attempts to swim the English Channel, she did more than set a new athletic records - she also shocked the public by wearing the very first one-piece swimsuit that did not include pantaloons. Instead, her swimwear look consisted of a form-fitting leotard paired with tights or stockings that closely hugged her body. This look was considered incredibly salacious at the time. Records even indicate that Kellerman was arrested on Revere Beach, Massachusetts for public indecency due to her scandalous swimsuits. None of this, however, deterred the fearless athlete. Kellerman went on to popularize the sport of synchronized swimming and also advocated for her own bathing suit line. In the 1910s, suits called “Annette Kellermans” became increasingly popular and pushed women’s swimwear forward into a more modern era.

The 1920 & 1930

In the 1920s, hemlines were getting shorter and morals were becoming looser. This can also be seen when looking at the history of swimwear from the Roaring Twenties. Swimwear in the 1920s also saw a change in style and construction following the path started by fashion trailblazer Annette Kellerman. One-piece swimwear that featured a form-fitting top and long, form-fitting shorts became the norm. While these were still paired with stockings and other accessories, more skin was being shown at the beach than ever before. Another notable change was thanks to Jantzen, a sportswear company founded in Portland, Oregon. In 1920, they decided to re-brand the bathing suit and call it instead the “swim suit.” It was the first time that term had ever been used. This brand began creating and marketing mass produced swimming suits in a stretchy, ribbed jersey. The iconic “Red Diving Girl” in their advertising was paired with the tagline “The Suit That Changed Bathing to Swimming.” Their product was a sensation and forever changed the way we look at - and talk about - swimwear. This was also the first time that sportswear became an important component of fashion. As the 1920s ended and the 1930s began, swimwear started to feature brighter colors, lower necklines, and shorter hemlines. Don’t think, however, that these changes didn’t cause controversy among certain parts of society. During this time period, popular beaches started employing police, who measured a swimsuit’s hemline in an attempt to maintain modesty.

The 1940s

These changes were of course revolutionary. But in 1946, swimwear saw its biggest and most important change yet. In the resort town of Cannes on the French Riviera, a lingerie designer named Louis Réard decided to create what he said was “the world’s smallest bathing suit.” On July 5, 1946, a model named Micheline Bernardini stepped out wearing the world’s very first bikini. Modest members of society deemed the bikini to be ghastly and inappropriate, but the style quickly caught on in subsequent decades.

1950s & 1960s

The rise of media is what caused the bikini to truly take off. In the early 1950s, bikinis were still considered scandalous and were even banned from the 1951 Miss America Pageant’s swimsuit competition. When popular Hollywood style icons were photographed wearing them, however, they began to truly take off. Bridget Bardot was one of the first celebrities photographed wearing a bikini in Cannes in 1953. Not long after, style stars like Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, and Marilyn Monroe all helped elevate the simple bikini into a bombshell must-have. Soon after seeing these iconic ladies sporting this stylish swimwear, women everywhere wanted them for themselves. In the 1960s, the bikini truly became a “sex symbol.” The decade started with Brian Hyland’s song entitled “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini” playing on radio airwaves across the nation. During the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the two-piece swimsuit was an important symbol of women’s rights and rebellion. Movies like 1962’s “Dr. No” also made the string bikini a staple in society. And in 1964, a popular magazine called Sports Illustrated started featuring sexy women wearing bikinis emblazoned on its covers.

1970 - Now

During the modern era, the swimsuit continued to become a popular sex symbol. Celebrities like Farrah Fawcett, Bo Derek, and Pamela Anderson ensured it was a mainstay in popular culture across these modern decades. In the 2010s, however, swimwear once again became a tool for revolution and change. During much of the 2000s, the media was filled only with images of stick-thin models with perfect bodies wearing bikinis. Women started to wonder why it wasn’t appropriate for “normal” looking women to be photographed wearing swimwear. In 2016, model Ashley Graham became the first plus-sized model to appear in a bikini on the cover of the popular Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. Following that appearance, many popular retailers followed suit and started photographing women of all shapes, colors, and sizes modeling bikinis and other swimwear. While society has come a long way from the modest bathing dresses worn during the Victorian Era, swimwear continues to be a tool for cultural and societal change.

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