How swimsuit styles have changed over the years

swimsuit styles


Swimsuit styles run such a
gamut that while you’re usually excited to get to the beach and take in the
good weather at the start of summer, the prospect of picking out a swimsuit is
far less exciting.
There are so many options —
and revealing so much of your body after the winter may not be your favorite
thing. But when you look back the history of swimwear, we should consider
ourselves lucky. Here’s a glimpse into how swimsuits have drastically changed
over time.
Ancient Rome (753 BC – 476 AD)

swimsuit styles Ancient Rome

Many of us might think that
the farther back you go in history, the more covered up women were required to
be. But that isn’t exactly the case. As printed in an article for the
University of Pennsylvania Museum, the Villa Romana del Casale houses frescos
that show women wearing what looks like two-piece swimsuits.
The museum states that
scholars agree that the women in the painting are competing in an athletic
competition. Female sports contests were fairly common among the elite and were
a great show of the host’s status. Often called “The Bikini Girls,”
the fresco shows that women were allowed lesser coverage, at least for the sake
of sport.

Late 1600s

late 1600s

In the Western world, bathing
was a luxury. According to Salon, it wasn’t godly to indulge in luxuries, so
monks and priests would hardly bathe at all, so that they could be closer to
God — and farther away from people with a sense of smell. Salon noted an
instance where the 14th century King of France asked a doctor about what was
causing the black plague. The doctor told him that people were bathing in hot
water, which opened their pores and opened them up to the disease. If bathing
meant the plague, a leisurely trip to the old swimming hole was really out of
the question.
But by the late 1600s people’s
aquatic fears started to subside, especially when Queen Mary and Queen Anne
sang the praises of the natural hot springs of Bath, England, according to
traveller and writer Rick Steeves. Salon reported that bathing in hot springs,
or the sea, was a prescribed medical procedure, not something to do on
vacation. So, if a woman had to go to a bath, she had to wear a stiff,
shapeless garment. Not exactly the swimsuit style choice of today.
The Smithsonian published the
travel notes of Englishwoman Celia Fiennes, on bathing wear in 1687, “The
[ladies] go into the bath with garments made of a fine yellow canvas, which is
stiff and made large with great sleeves like a parson’s gown. The water fills
it up so that it is borne off that your shape is not seen, it does not cling
close as other [linings], which [looks] sadly in the poorer sort that go in
their own [lining].”
Victorian era (1837-1901)

swimsuit styles Victorian era

By the Victorian age, water
was no longer considered dangerous, so trips to the seaside became more
popular. Since this was a period in which women were charged with upholding
“a nation’s moral wealth,” ladies’ bathing clothes were, not
surprisingly, incredibly bulky.
In the book We Did What?,
editor Timothy B. Jay details the proper Victorian “bathing costume”
which consisted of a high necked dress with 3/4 length sleeves and a knee
length skirt. But that wasn’t all. Beneath that, women had to wear long
bloomers and black stockings, so none of their legs could be seen. All of this
came in a heavy flannel, that would easily weigh you down in the water.
This swimsuit alone still
wasn’t modest enough for some Victorians. In The Englishwoman’s Domestic
Magazine (via the book How to be a Victorian), an article was penned in 1868
about a new modern product: swimming corsets! Described as being “very
small, and made with whalebones, but no steel, on purpose to wear when
bathing.” Swimming in a long, heavy skirt, tights, and a corset sounds
like the worst beach trip since Castaway.
Bathing machines (1837-1901)

bathing machines

Victorians were so worried
about any errant man viewing a woman’s body at the beach, they invented a
machine to keep the bathing beauties out of sight. Yes, even though the ladies
were already wearing full dresses, bloomers, and stockings, the swimwear was
still considered too risque.
According to The Independent,
a bathing machine was a device that looked a bit like a small changing room on
wheels. The woman would get inside, change into her bathing costume, then the
contraption would be pulled into the surf by horses, where she would climb down
a little latter and enjoy the water. This incredibly complicated process
insured that bare ankles, or ladies without a bathing corset, would not be seen
by lascivious men.
Also, the beaches were legally
separated by sex at the time, so this was to make sure no man on the male beach
with binoculars — or really good eyesight — could catch a peek. According to
The Independent, Queen Victoria owned a machine, because she “feared being
spotted by sailors peering through telescopes.”
Annette Kellerman swimsuit
pioneer (1907)

Annette Kellerman swimsuit style

Australian swimmer Annette
Kellerman made recreational swimming popular again and held every female
swimming record in 1905. Plus, she appeared in vaudeville shows as The
Australian Mermaid. When Kellerman showed up at a beach near Boston in 1907,
she was arrested for her “scandalous” attire. Her shocking swimsuit
was a one-piece with tank top straps and shorts. Today, you’d be the most covered-up
girl on the beach wearing it, but 1907 Boston wasn’t having it.
The Boston Sunday Globe (via
Boston) ran an article about Kellerman in 1953 that included an interview with
the record-breaking swimmer. She said the arrest was a misunderstanding
“but the judge was quite nice and allowed me to wear the suit if I would
wear a full-length cape to the water’s edge.” The article went on to say,
“In a few short years the Annette Kellerman one-piece bathing suit was the
accepted female attire for beach and pool, symbol and fact of new freedom for
Let’s take a moment and thank
Kellerman for saving future generations of women from the hassle of wearing a
thick flannel dress to the beach.

swimsuit styles 1920s

In the age of flappers, all
the long bathing gowns, as well as low hemlines, were gone. Swimwear had now
evolved into close fitting one-pieces with small skirts or shorts. Jantzen
became the top name in swimsuit style and the diving image of the “Jantzen
Girl” was splashed across billboards all over the country.
Though these suits looked much
more akin to what we wear today, they would have felt very different. Jantzen’s
website states their first swimsuits were made entirely of wool and that
remained the primary material through most of the 1920s. Imagine swimming in a
tight fitting sweater. Still, these suits allowed women to move freely and
reveal a bit more of their bodies.

swimsuit styles 1930s

The ’30s didn’t bring about a
big change in the cut of swimwear, but the material changed drastically.
Jantzen began to weave Lastex (a form of elastic thread) into their swim suits.
According to Carol Alhadeff, Jantzen archivist (via Fashionista) “[It] was
considered a miracle yarn because it stretched both ways.”
According to the Vintage
Fashion Guild, Mabs of Hollywood made Lastex swimsuits for big Hollywood stars
like Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow. When Lastex swimwear got the Hollywood seal
of approval, knit swimsuits were over and done.
World War II (1941-1945)

swimsuit styles WWII

The rationing of World War II
affected every American, including swimsuit manufacturers. But who would have
thought it would take a World War to lead to a woman wearing a two-piece?
In 1943, the government
ordered that makers of swimsuits had to reduce their fabric used by ten
percent. The best way to do that was to make a two-piece. By showing off a
little midriff, you were doing your duty for America. These suits still weren’t
terribly revealing, featuring very high waisted bottoms with tops that showed
minimal cleavage. Still, this was a big step towards women choosing what they
wanted to wear to the beach.
Invention of the Bikini (1946)

swimsuit styles bikini

In France, designers Jacques
Heim and Louis Réard wanted to create a piece of clothing that exemplified the
country’s newfound freedom and happiness after the end of World War II,
according to History. So, they came up with the skimpiest swimsuit style to
date, the bikini.
Réard took the name from the
location of a US atomic test near the Bikini Atoll. And this new look was
pretty explosive. According to fashion historian Amber Butchart (via The
Telegraph), author of The Fashion of Film, the first bikini was a complete
shock. “Indeed, the bikini was so scandalous when it premiered that Réard
had difficulties finding a model to wear it, so had to hire the nude dancer
Micheline Bernardini.”
The article goes on to say
that the Vatican declared the bikini “sinful,” with many European
nations in the ’50s attempting to ban the suit. But by the time the ’60s rolled
around — and Bond girls and cave women were sporting skimpy two-pieces —
bikinis became common.
1970s and on

swimsuit styles

Though bikinis certainly never
went out of style, in the ’70s, Farrah Fawcett brought back the one-piece with
her iconic pin up poster. Most of Sports Illustrated’s top picks of the ’70s
are one-pieces similar in shape to the one Fawcett made famous.
The ’80s brought back a
slightly skimpier look, and whether it was one-piece, or two, swimsuit styles
were definitely cut high on the thigh. Photographer Keith McManus documented
the spring breaks between 1982 and 1993 in his book Rites of Passage. The
photos (via Messy Nessy Chic) show that small bikinis were in and women weren’t
afraid of showing off a lot of skin.
In the ’90s, string bikinis
were still popular, but the tankini became the latest trend. The combination of
tank top and swim bottoms brought a lot more coverage to two-piece swimwear.
The 21st century brought about
a mix of everything. Cosmopolitan revealed Brazilian-style skimpy bottoms as
all the rage in 2014. Though that look had been popular in Brazil for years,
and it took Americans a little time to warm up to it, mainstream retailer
Victoria’s Secret now sells “Itsy” and “Cheeky” bottoms for
ladies worldwide. But swimwear styles are up to the wearer! These days, it’s
easy to find retro high waisted bikinis, athletic one-pieces, and everything in

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.