By Fiona Ellis
Bathing, that invigorating act of stepping into pool or sea in the company of others, has a history that drifts back to Roman times, possibly even earlier. How, where, and with whom we swim or bathe—and how it’s viewed by society—changed considerably between ancient and modern times. But whatever the era, these factors all contribute to how people choose to clothe themselves for a swim or a splash. Let’s dive in for a look at the evolution of western swimwear and the shifts in viewpoint that brought about those changes.
Bathing has occupied a number of societal roles over the centuries, many of them closely related to contemporary ideas of health. The baths were a social gathering place during Roman times—a place to meet and discuss political ideas. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, visits to mineral spas were popular for therapeutic health benefits; as a result, towns like Bath in England and Spa in Belgium grew into resort areas. With the advent of rail and car travel, spending a day at the seaside became a popular leisure pursuit, which in turn spawned the popularity of beauty pageants. Extended trips to sunny far-off places in search of the perfect tan came about when affordable airline travel became a possibility.
Swimming emerged as an organized sporting activity in the 19th century and became an Olympic sport in 1904, but women weren’t allowed to compete until eight years later. And as the sport evolved, so did the outfits worn for it. New designs and new fibers emerged to tackle the challenge of creating swimwear that suited both freedom of movement and the contemporary ideals of modesty or decency. How much skin was on show evolved from a mere glimpse of an ankle in the 19th century to the arm-baring suit favored by Australian competitive swimmer Annette Kellerman in the early 20th century (the wearing of which resulted in her arrest for indecency 1907) to the midriff-baring bikinis of the 1950s to the ultra-formfitting (and often ultra-revealing) suits of today.
The gold-medal winning British freestyle relay swim team, 1912. Photo from the George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).
Olympic Swimmers, Stockholm, 1912. Photo from the George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).
Modern competitive swimsuits on display at the Riviera Style exhibit at the Fashion and Textile Museum, London.
In Victorian times ladies donned bathing suits that were essentially a dress worn over pantaloons. Women changed in portable cabins that were pulled by horse to the water’s edge, allowing the bather to slip (almost) unseen into the ocean. But as the 20th century dawned, opinions about how much of the female form should be exposed began to change. By the 1920s bathing attire, while still dress-like, bared the arms and knees. Stockings were still a must with these suits and some beaches employed modesty patrols to ensure not too much leg was on display. It was in this period that Jantzen Knitting Mills introduced a new take on the swimsuit: a deep-scooped V-neck with a dropped waist, worn over short shorts and considered quite skimpy for the time.
A 19th-century bathing machine. Jan Van Beers, 1888. (New York Public Library Digital Collections).
The tank suit, or maillot, became popular in the 1930s but even then it was often worn with a “modesty apron,” a skirt attached to the front of the suit. Spending time at the beach was considered a stylish activity, so along with suits for swimming, beach pajamas—a trend started by Coco Chanel—were much in demand. Having a tan had become a symbol of glamour and wealth so swimsuits now had plunging backs or straps that could be easily lowered to avoid tan lines. Halter styles also became popular for the same reason.
The fabric rationing of World War II caused designers to get creative about conserving fabric; as a result, two-piece suits and cutaways at the midriff soon became popular. In 1945 Claire McCardell introduced her ingenious “diaper” suits which featured a shaped front with an adjustable length of fabric that wrapped between the legs and tied around the waist, but the real revolution arrived on July 5, 1946. That's when Louis Réard introduced a scandalous two-piece suit that showed off more of the torso than had ever been on public display before—at least in polite company. In a nod to the shock waves it created, the suit was named “the bikini” after the Pacific Ocean atoll where testing of the atom bomb had taken place just a few days earlier. The style was so risqué for the time that Réard’s models refused to put it on; he had to hire an exotic dancer to wear it. That same year designer Jacques Heim also showed a two-piece suit that he called “atome.” Heim’s design covered the navel, making it a bit more acceptable to the public. His more reserved style caught on but the name didn’t.
The two-piece suit remained popular throughout the 1950s. A topless swimsuit made a brief appearance in 1964—designed by Rudi Gernreich, it was intended as a political statement rather than a commercial product. During the 1970s and ‘80s, inspired by the decade’s fitness crazes, cutaway swimsuits became ubiquitous. These often had open side panels held closed by small bands of fabric or rings, but mostly it was all about the high cut of the leg. The cheeky thong, which made its debut in 1977 but didn’t gain popularity until a decade or so later, took the high leg to the extreme.
Rudy Gernreich's topless suit. Photo by by Kenn Duncan (New York Public Library Digital Collections)
As information about the damage sunbathing could cause became widespread, suits started to offer more coverage. The tankini, an elongated top with a separate bottom became the look for the beach; for serious swimming, especially at the competitive level, full-body suits were reintroduced.
High and Dry
The first swimsuits were made from woven fabrics. Long-sleeved Victorian bathing dresses made of serge or flannel eventually gave way to knitted wool garments that sometimes sported weighted hemlines to prevent the skirt from floating up. Wool, it was thought, would offer warmth in cold water; knits were chosen for flexible structure and elasticity. A variety of knitted variations became available in the early part of the 20th century. Scott William patented interlock in 1909, and jersey became Chanel’s signature fabric for both daywear and bathing suits. In 1915 Jantzen attempted to address issues of fit by making a suit in a ribbed fabric, basing the design on one of the company’s rowing outfits.
Natural fibers gave way to manmade and synthetics in the 1920s; Speedo was the first company to introduce a non-wool bathing suit. In 1931 Dunlop launched Lastex, an elastic material made by wrapping strands of manmade fiber around a natural rubber filament. Rayon was also popular for swimwear until its lack of durability when wet surfaced. Nylon suits by Speedo debuted at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. The real game changer though was Lycra (1958), more durable and comfortable than earlier elastic fibers, it was the gateway to the water-repellent, drag-resistant performance fabrics that are now marketed under names like Aquablade (1996) and Fastskin (2000).
Innovations in design were just as plentiful. A smocked-and-ruched design called the “telescopic” swimsuit, which provided a snug fit for varying body types, debuted in the 1930s. In the 1940s Hollywood glamour was introduced with Cole of California adding sequins, beads and prints to their suits. In an effort to help mere mortals achieve the wasp-waisted pinup look so popular in the 1950s, manufacturers began incorporating corset construction into their suits, a technique that also allowed for the first strapless swimsuit. Smocking and ruching (this time achieved with elastic) resurfaced in the late 1950s and early 1960s allowing for free body movement and a figure-hugging contour. Unfortunately the rubber-based elastic degraded easily.
Suits were also knit by hand at home with a profusion of patterns being available during the 1920s right through to the 1950s. The ‘70s of course brought the crocheted cotton bikini poolside—where wise wearers remained, as a dip in the water resulted in a stretched-out, saggy suit.
Early bathing costumes were light on decorative embellishment. Bands of piping around the hem or necklines or a nod to nautical influences by way of a sailor collar were the only details. Navy and white stripes were (and still are) popular, as were logo-type motifs, another trend that hasn’t been shaken off. Swimsuit colors remained dark and drab until the 1930s. Although Art Deco-inspired prints made their debut in the 1920s, it wasn’t until the 1940s and 50s that patterning took off, often incorporating large flowers in hothouse colors and animal prints.
Contestants in a July 4 beauty contest in Salisbury, Maryland, 1940. Photography by Jack Delano, Farm Security Administration—Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)
Making a Splash
The companies that manufacture swimsuits have become household names for swimwear fashions. These include Jantzen, which had the genius branding idea of adopting a woman wearing a red swimsuit in a diving pose as its logo. In an effort to promote swimming (rather than bathing) and the mobility afforded by Jantzen suits, an advertisement from 1925 illustrated a woman in various swimming movements. Speedo, founded in Australia, also had a huge influence on all things swimsuit-related. The company introduced the form-fitting racerback suit for men in 1928, a style that was banned on the beaches; trunks for men (worn bare chested and only a little less skimpy than the style seen today), were introduced in 1938.
The usual trendsetting factors, such as street style or clothing worn by royalty or celebrities haven’t applied to changes in swimwear. Aside from McCardell, Chanel, and Schiaparelli, movements set by couture design houses have had little significance. Rather, swings in contemporary thinking and technological advances in fabric and construction have been the driving influences.
There have, of course, been pop cultural reference and influences. Hollywood movies of the 1940s featured synchronized swimming stars like Dorothy Lamour and Ester Williams, a trend that flowed into the 1950s beach party movies starring Annette Funicello and Sally Field. Beauty pageants sprang out of the 1905 Floral Parade in California, leading to “bathing suit day” held at Madison Square Garden in May 1916, which then evolved into the beauty contests held in Atlantic City. Sports Illustrated published its first swimsuit issue in 1964.
And swimwear does have its celebrity moments. Jean Harlow, posed poolside in a swimsuit and heels; Ursula Andress emerging from the ocean in a two-piece, complete with knife belt, in Dr. No (the suit top was actually Andress’s bra covered in fabric); Pam Grier in a crochet triangle top, Bo Derek’s nude maillot in 10; Pamela Anderson’s red Baywatch suit with its hip-baring, high-cut leg; Halle Berry reprising the Dr. No bikini (in orange this time but still with knife belt) for Die Another Day in 2002. Today’s suits draw heavily on the past, running the gamut from retro styles with boy-cut legs and push-up bras to the leave-little-to-the-imagination bikinis of spring-breakers to the sleek full-body suits favored by Olympians. It’s been a long road from the horse-drawn changing cabins to the covers of Sports Illustrated, but it’s certainly never been boring.
Fiona Ellis is the author of Inspired Cable Knits, Knitspiration Journal, and Inspired Fair Isle Knits. She is an online instructor at Craftsy; you can find out what she is currently working on at www.fionaellisonline.com.