EDITORIAL FEATURE

The Radical History of the Swimsuit

From bathing in the buff, to bloomers and bikinis

Few items of clothing have been as revolutionary, or as risqué, as the swimsuit. From full body coverage to the itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini, swimsuits have seen endless creative innovations that allow us to take a dip into the water while also looking like we’re walking on a Paris runway. But do you know how we really got to the bikini we all know and love today? Here’s the story behind the swimsuit and how it evolved over the years in the West.

When Going Au Natural was “Oh So Natural”
Ancient Origins

Back in the olden days of Ancient Rome, thousands of years ago, swimming for pleasure wasn’t common. When people did swim or bathe, they went nude, though occasionally women also sported a bandeau-style top with a pair of briefs.

Tepidarium, Théodore Chassériau, 1853 (From the collection of Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Bathing and swimming were done privately—in your own bath or with other women in bathhouses (like this one shown in a painting depicting the bathhouses of Pompeii)—so swimsuits weren’t really deemed. This painting of a bathhouse shows just how exposed women were when swimming, except for when they needed to towel off, or pull on a cover-up.

Pompeian bath (From the collection of Art Gallery of New South Wales)

It wasn't until the 18th century when manners changed and modesty suddenly took hold that we get the first true swimsuit, with European ladies wading into the water in long dresses, known as “bathing costumes,” which were often made from wool and frequently featured sleeves—sometimes even being worn with long socks. They were cut so large that they floated away from the body to obscure curves. Prior to this time, women and men continued to swim in the nude, but separately. In fact, throughout the Middle Ages, swimming in the Christian West was regarded as practically immoral, thus removing the need for a swimsuit altogether. This emphasis on morality in relation to bathing carried over into the conservative 18th-century swimsuit.

Floating in Flannel & Wool
The Bathing Gown: 18th Century

While men at this time let swam 'freely,' so to speak, the popularity of the bathing gown continued for European women through the 1700s and into the 1800s. Along with wool, swimsuits from this era were also made from canvas and flannel, which, naturally, were far too heavy for real swimming, but which at least had the virtue of being sturdy and, most importantly, didn’t turn transparent when wet.

Rec Seaside Bathing-Beauty-Costume (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Some gowns even had weighted hems to prevent the fabric from riding up mid-swim, saving women from suffering the embarrassment of unwittingly showing some leg. Swimming was deemed a healthy pursuit, but it sure couldn’t have been any fun in those suits.


A Hint of Leg Kicks Off A Change
18th into 19th Centuries

So-called “bathing gowns” didn’t last forever, though. In the mid-1800s, bloomer swimsuits, with full skirts and wide legs that cinched, gained popularity. Still, like their wool predecessors, they were unwieldy in the water and ridiculously impractical by today’s standards.

Black wool bathing suit (From the collection of National Museum of Costume in Portugal)

Named after the activist Amelia Bloomer, bloomers didn’t depart too far from the original heavy bathing gowns, but these suits were still controversial their time since they were technically pants, which were typically only worn by men at the time.

“Later-bloomer” suits like these colorful ones shown below were slightly more freeing—made of lighter fabric and cut higher on the leg, showing how sportswear started to influence swimwear. Still, coverage was the priority over practicality, until sports took hold across Europe and America in the mid-1900s. Those trends led to the revolutionary one-piece—so revolutionary that one woman actually faced police charges for wearing it.

Swimsuit [left], Swimsuit [right] (From the collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute)

Annette Makes Waves
Turn of the Century

Before the one piece was accepted by women everywhere, in the early 20th century the swimmer Annette Kellerman debuted one that more closely resembled a man’s swimsuit. This new design covered her body, but because it was designed for the speed she needed to win and form-fitting, Annette was arrested for wearing it in Boston.

Annette Kellerman (From the collection of National Portrait Gallery)

But what Annette began couldn’t be held back. As the one piece became more accepted, it gained frills and flourishes, like slimmer straps, the ruffle, and designed pockets like the ones on this orange twill suit from the 1920s and 30s. Swimsuits like these started to merge the function of the one-piece with a fun sense of fashion.


The Need for Speed
The Swimsuit Enters the 20th Century

When sports began to seize the world’s attention, spurred by earlier events like the modernized Olympics in 1896, swimsuits changed drastically. For the first time, swimming was seen as a sport, something to be taken seriously, and the new one-piece swimwear reflected that.

It was cut closer to the body and made of newly invented sleek material like nylon. Showing up at sports events like this, the one-piece shook up the swimsuit forever.

Swimsuit fashion show at sports arena, 1959, Mark Kauffman (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

As fun as these whimsical one-pieces were, the bikini was really what finally broke the swimwear mould.


The Birth of the Bikini: Swimwear Hits its Stride in the Mid-Twentieth Century
A Bombshell of a Design

Designed by Louis Réard in 1946, the bikini was named after nuclear tests that had just happened on the Bikini Atoll islands, since he believed it would be just as shocking and bombastic as those events - and he was right. The bikini was daring, even more skimpy than the traditional two-piece with its higher cut shorts, made for swimming and for showing off on the beach with bright colors.

Ten Cent Fashions, Nina Leen, 1949-07-07 (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

It might look tame now, but Louis’ bikini evolved from the functional one-piece made from nylon into a dynamic, daring two-piece. It took a while to catch on, but the bikini did, and it was worn by everyone from Rita Hayworth to Annette Funicello (but not Kellerman, that we know of).

Rita Hayworth (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

Stretchy materials from nylon to latex were created and proved to be even more durable and lighter in the water. Cotton twill was still used through the 1960s, such as in this wildly printed ensemble from the actress Lauren Bacall’s closet, but in the water nylon and stretchier latex were the new thing.

We Are Handsome, We Are Handsome, 2014 (From the collection of Australian Fashion Council)

Once swimmers embraced the bikini, they never looked back. Modern designs have gone even further, baring almost everything in the name of fashionable swimwear.


Monokini: Beyond the BikiniDaring to Bare

Made of the same nylon and spandex, some swimsuit designs push the envelope in a way that's bold even for a looser age like today.

Swimsuit (From the collection of The Kyoto Costume Institute)

Rudi Gernreich, a designer from the 1960s, removed even more fabric from the swimsuit with his ‘monokini’, a design that ironically looks back to the very first swimsuit: bare skin. When you think about it, swimsuits have come full circle, and they’re truly one of the most innovative garments around.

From full body, wooly coverage to the more modern, barely-there options, swimsuits have done it all.

Learn more about how the smallest suit in the world became the biggest trend:

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