There are few clothing items that have had an evolutionary trajectory commensurate with the bathing suit. Throughout history, men and women have always had the need to swim, and for the later part of that history, they’ve used bathing suits to do it.
From the humble beginnings of the bathing gown to the advent of the daring and midriff-baring two-piece swimsuit to the myriad options available in swimwear now, let’s take a journey through time to learn more about how the swimsuit, as we know it, came to be.
How Did the Swimsuit Get Its Start?
The earliest bathing suits were nothing like they are now! At the beginning of human history, swimsuits were actually discouraged. From the middle ages up to the 18th century, what we know as a bathing suit would have been considered taboo.
The first notable “bathing costumes” looked a lot more like nightgowns than the swimsuits of today. It wasn’t until the 18th century that water activity gained popularity. It was believed that swimming, especially swimming in the ocean, held great health benefits. Some people would even soak in bathhouses or Victorian-era bathing machines to reap the alleged benefits.
However, it was highly discouraged to immerse oneself fully in the water. This was especially true for women, as water activities were considered somewhat unfeminine.
Swimwear during this time was focused around the concept of water activity being confined mostly to bathing. Although people did swim and enjoy the water for its supposed health benefits, the bathing suits were loose-fitting shift dresses and were not designed with athletic activity at all.
Swimwear in the Late 1800s
With the turn of the 19th century, swimming as a recreational activity began to surpass the public excitement for bathing as a health benefit, and swimwear began to reflect this. Swimwear became more fitted and much more complex.
Still, maintaining modesty was at the top of the priority list, especially for women, who were held to a higher standard than men in this regard.
The women’s bathing suits of the mid to late 1800s were not exactly ergonomic or hydrodynamic. They were complicated, with multiple pieces: a bathing dress, drawers, and stockings. And forget about spandex! These were made most commonly of cotton or wool.
Unsurprisingly, the suits would quickly become saturated and heavy and were clearly not well suited (pun intended) for athletic activity. Again, this was just fine for the women of the time, since they weren’t really supposed to be athletic anyway.
The prohibitive swimwear of the time was a direct reflection of the social and physical restraints that were imposed on women during this era.
The Early to Mid 1900s: The Invention of the Swimsuit
In the early 20th century, just before World War I, even more major changes to the swimsuit occurred. It was around this time that Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman got arrested for wearing a bathing suit while sunbathing on the beach rather than the long sleeves and knee-length bloomers that were the norm for the time.
In 1915, the term “swimsuit” was coined by Jantzen Knitting Mills. Around the same time, the now-ubiquitous Speedo began experimenting with swimwear for the first time. At long last, the American public had a garment that was not only appropriate for vigorous water activities but also maintained some of the modesty of the 1800s. Still, the new suit was significantly more risque than its predecessors.
In the early 19th century, swimming emerged as a competitive sport, but it didn’t gain full popularity until its debut at the Olympic games in 1896. This marked the beginning of a new era for the swimsuit.
Shifting social attitudes about women’s participation in athletics meant that women’s suits were now designed with movement in mind. Suits at this time became more form-fitting, similar to the athletic swimwear of today. It was still considered indecent for women to show their legs after the turn of the century, especially in the early 1900s, but this too began to change.
By the mid-1920s, swimsuits began to morph into a design that is much more similar to what we have in modest swimwear today. This massive shift in cultural norms makes sense when one considers the social changes that took place following the Industrial Revolution. The aptly nicknamed “Roaring Twenties” was certainly roaring for swimsuits!
One Giant Leap for Swimsuit-Kind
From this point on, the trendy swimsuits began showing more and more skin. In 1946, a French designer named Louis Reard debuted the very first bikini. There had been some dabbling in two-piece suits in the years leading up to WWII, but nothing like the famed bikini.
Fun fact about the bikini: When Reard first wanted to introduce the bikini to the world, he had a hard time finding a model who would dare to wear it! He ended up approaching exotic dancer Micheline Bernardini, who had no problem being practically nude in public. Bernardini became the first woman to ever wear the iconic bikini.
When the bikini was unveiled, it was a smash hit.
America Resists the Bare Midriff
Though the much skimpier two-piece suits were sweeping across Europe — think “itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny yellow polka dot bikini” — the much more prudish Americans had a hard time accepting this shift in what was considered, at the time, morality.
Though bikinis existed and gained some popularity in the 1940s and the 1950s, it wasn’t until the early sixties, amid the emphasis on youthful liberation and freedom, that the bikini became the norm.
Thanks to the “beach blanket” movies that featured stars like Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, the bikini was immortalized and accepted by the American public. Beaches and female body image would never be the same.
The Late 1900s: Technological Developments
Now that bikinis had become popular and suits were starting to be more movement-friendly, it was time for the swimwear industry to turn its attention to material. With form-fitting suits, a need for stretchier material became obvious.
Though this transition had begun in the later 1930s with the invention of Lastex yarn, swimsuit technology continued to develop and thrive.
Speedo introduced nylon into swimwear in 1956, which was truly groundbreaking. This ultra stretchy material designed for athletic movement was first prioritized for men’s competitive swimwear only. However, it wasn’t long before nylon found its way into women’s competitive swimwear as well.
In the 1970s, Speedo introduced the material elastane into their swimsuit lines. The combination of nylon and elastane made a huge difference in the movability of the bathing suit, significantly reduced water drag while swimming, and improved the overall durability and life of a swimsuit. Not long after, companies from coastal states like California and New York began producing figure-hugging swimsuits to match the styles of the era.
The More Suits Change, the More They Stay the Same
From the 1960s on, not a lot changed in the way of women’s swimwear. Of course, there were a few notable moments, such as the infamous Baywatch era. With the popularity of the show, one-piece suits actually came back into fashion, and still are to this day.
Though the style of suits was fairly stagnant from the 1960s to the late 1990s, there was an increase in bold, bright colors. Though many suits remained somewhat skimpy in terms of trends, there were always other options for those who didn’t want to bare so much skin, such as one-pieces, skirted suits, and even board shorts.
Swimwear in the 21st Century
The internet age ushered in an entirely new set of swimsuit trends. The most important was the fact that it was no longer necessary to go to a mall or department store to try on a swimsuit.
Many women dread the process of going bathing suit shopping, so the thought of being able to try on bathing suits in the privacy of one’s own home is appealing to many! And with retailers offering attractive return and exchange policies, online bathing suit shopping is a win-win.
What’s Trending in Bathing Suits?
Bathing suit trends have come and gone and also come back around again. So much has been tried in swimsuit fashion that there is not all that much ground to break in this area. However, some of the tried and true styles remain in fashion.
If you, like many of us, love browsing online for bathing suits, here are the most popular styles of suits that you might find:
One-Piece Suits: A traditional mainstay in the swimsuit industry, the one-piece has had a revival in recent years. Now, one-piece suits can be found in just about every color and material one would ever want.
Skirted Swimsuits: For those who are hoping for a more modest cut, the skirted swimsuit is perfect. Skirted swimsuits are pretty and feminine, and they also offer a bit more coverage for those who aren’t trying to reveal too much.
Bikinis: The bikini will always retain some form of popularity. There are so many styles now, it can be hard to keep track! Those who are looking for the skimpiest style will be happy with a string bikini, while those desiring more support might opt for a halter cut or something else with wide straps.
Tankinis: Tankinis are the perfect compromise between a two-piece and a one-piece suit. They offer the coverage that a one-piece offers, but some believe that a tankini can allow for more movement. The other benefit is that for those who need different sizes for the top and the bottom, a tankini is forgiving.
Monokinis: The monokini is a type of bathing suit that many people have not heard of. Monokinis are unique in that they are a cross between a skimpy bikini and a one-piece. Typically, monokinis feature covering of the abdominal area, with some sort of cutout on the sides. A daring suit despite its one-piece credentials, this one is for those who aren’t afraid to show a little skin!
Swim Shorts: In what could be considered an homage to the suits of yesteryear, shorts that offer some extra coverage are becoming more common. Swim shorts are such a great option for those who need more coverage to play in the sand with kids, walk on the beach, or simply be a bit more modest.
Swimsuits have come a long way over the decades. From their humble beginnings when they were known as bathing gowns, to the present day when you can find bold monokinis and sexy string bikinis, the bathing suit is here to stay. Now, there are so many options that anyone will be able to find the perfect suit to suit their needs!