Over the past 300 years, women’s swimwear has encompassed the full range of possible coverage, from 18th century bathing gowns and modern-day burkinis to the itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini. Here’s a look at some different styles of western swimwear in recent history.
The earliest swimsuits in the time period we’re looking at would have been nothing at all! “Bathing” was often done in sex-separated groups, if at all, and was even widely considered to be immoral for a stretch. When swimming, or "sea-bathing," started to become popular, the initial 200 years of suits were more concerned with modesty than movement.
In the 1700s, women’s swimwear was known as a bathing gown. These long and loose chemises featured long sleeves and coverage all the way to the ankles. The heavy wool or flannel construction kept the garments from clinging too closely to the wearer’s figure even while wet, and prevented the dresses from floating up in the water. Some women took the extra step of adding weights to the hems of their gowns to prevent any accidental display of their calves - GASP!
During the early 1800s, beachgoing and bathing became more popular and even stylish, which led to an increased focus on fashionable swimwear. Suits were still cut for maximum modesty and minimum movement - the long gowns were layered over trousers for modesty, and were still constructed of heavy materials that rendered actual swimming very difficult. A popular seaside activity for women at the time was wading or jumping through waves while holding a rope tied to a buoy to prevent drowning.
By the mid 1800s, the lengths of both the overgown and the trousers began to shorten. Bloomer Suits, named for Amelia Bloomer, had knee-length swim pants topped with short-sleeved tunics. These suits were still made of heavy wool, canvas, or flannel for reasons of modesty, but began to be available in more fashion-forward fabrics and cuts. Near the end of the century, sailor-style suits were all the rage. Even as silhouettes shortened, the legs were still off-limits: stockings and beach shoes continued to be in common usage up through the 1920s.
In 1907, there was quite the scandal in the world of swimwear. Annette Kellermen, who was the first woman to swim across the English channel, was arrested for wearing a form-fitting one-piece suit in Boston. Although shocking at the time, this more functional suit would have been unrecognizable as swimwear even 50 years later. The popularity of Annette’s suit led to her own swimwear line, and in 1911 she became the first actress to play a swimming mermaid on-screen.
Thanks to a boost from its inclusion in the Olympics, swimming as a sport increased greatly in popularity around the turn of the century. Women’s swimming events were first added to the Olympics in 1912, leading to an increased demand for suits that were more functional than full-coverage. In the second decade of the century, younger swimmers were drawn to sleeveless tunics layered over shorts and began to skip the stockings.
By 1920, Jantzen, a Portland knitting company, had dubbed their creations “swimming suits” instead of “bathing suits” to justify their sleeker silhouettes. Their suits were more figure-hugging and had shorter shorts than any suits previously, and some even featured shocking cutouts around the waistband! Shorts weren’t allowed to be TOO short, though - some beaches employed “swimsuit police” to measure suits and cite women who were showing (what they considered to be) too much leg.
In the 1930s, the mostly-knit suits became even more fashion forward, with higher cut legs and lower necklines. Swimming as a form of exercise was firmly established and even recommended to women who were “reducing.”
In the 40s, swimwear styles began to more closely follow the dress fashions of the day, including figure-flattering sweetheart necklines and ruching. Two-piece suits rose in popularity from 1943 on, as wartime shortages prompted the US to regulate a 10% reduction in the amount of fabric used for each suit. Though these suits did bare a bit of midriff, navels were still covered and the suit bottoms still hit at the natural waist.
All of that changed with a bang in 1946, when French designer Louis Réard debuted his new creation in Paris: a briefly-cut two-piece swimsuit he called the Bikini. Named for the atomic tests at Bikini Atoll, the cut was considered so shockingly revealing that he could only find a model by hiring a nude casino dancer. At only 18, Micheline Bernardini debuted the new modern bikini, and later received over 50,000 fan letters after the photos were popularized in the international press.
Although regarded as a new invention and a sign of the times, this was not actually the bikini’s first go-around. Ancient Roman mosaics depict women exercising in two-piece garments that bear a striking resemblance to a modern bandeau bikini. Although we have no evidence that these costumes were also worn for swimming, it certainly wasn’t a completely original silhouette.
By the early 1950s, the shock factor of the bikini had started to wear off and they became more mainstream. Actress Brigitte Bardot is credited with increasing the popularity of the bikini by wearing one to the 1953 Cannes Festival and in some of her movies. The iconic earworm “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” was released in 1960 and like the bikini, enjoyed quite a bit of popularity at the beach parties of the day. Swimwear in the 60s took the plunge into bold prints and eye-popping patterns.
The 70s brought more of a differentiation between athletic swimwear and beach styles, as well as a lot more visible skin.Tiny string bikinis became common, and thong-style bikini bottoms were introduced by fashion designer Rudi Gernreich in response to a ban on nude sunbathing in LA.
The 80s saw higher-cut leg openings and a return to drama in designs and patterns, especially neons and colorblocking.The tankini was first introduced in the 90s, as part of a trend towards more athletic designs. This decade also gave us mix and match swim separates. Since then, we’ve seen a rise in technical materials for the more athletic suits, and nearly infinite variety in the styles of casual swimwear - from rash guards for sun protection to suits of such fragile materials that they can’t even get wet.
One wonderful change we’ve seen in this new century has been an increased focus on body acceptance. Manufacturers and retailers have finally begun providing fashion-forward options for a wider range of body shapes and sizes. Today’s fashion rule is to wear what allows you to move the ways you want to move and makes you feel fabulous - and it’s about time!