Evolution of the Bathing Suit

Today’s swim wear is not much different than that worn in ancient Greece. Pictures on mosaic walls dated as far back as 300BC show ancient Greek women barely covered by pieces of fabric, much like today’s bikinis. This changed dramatically as the Church became ascendant.

Bathing fell out of favor for a few hundred years, after the Church declared cleanliness, or rather the act of becoming clean, too sensuous and sexual. Dirt was a symbol of one’s spiritual purity and refusing to bathe was proof of one’s piety. Besides, letting the Devil see you naked doomed your immortal soul.

Bathing was resurrected in England during the time of the Black Death (1350-1351) as a means to combat the disease. Elizabeth I is said to have bathed once a month; by the 1700s nobles had large copper tubs in their homes for the purpose; even the poor had barrels they could use.

During the 1800s, railroads made traveling to the seashore possible, and people flocked to the beach to get some sun and fresh air. However, during those years, white skin was prized (only “working people” had tans) so women did what they could to cover up. Ladies wore face-shading bonnets, shawls and gloves, and were known to sew weights into the hem of their smock-like bathing gowns to prevent the garment from floating up and showing their legs.

beachwear1In 1900, Ladies fashion magazines recommended bathing “costumes” to be made from “soft twill foulard (lightweight printed silk,) with skirt, long sleeves and high neck, and worn with a narrow linen collar. With this is worn a sunbonnet, and often gloves, the stockings and shoes being as dainty as those for ordinary house wear. Veils, of thin red gauze, are also advocated by some to protect the complexion.” Women were, however, allowed to show their lower arms, if desired.

This was slowly to change, however, and by 1910, some of the more adventurous women were actually going barefoot and displaying their ankles and calves. Naturally, the first to do so were arrested, but the march was on.

Annette-KellermanThen, in 1911, a buxom Australian Olympic swimming champion (and American movie star) named Annette Kellerman scandalized a Boston Beach when she appeared in a thigh-displaying one-piece bathing suit she designed. Today, of course, a wool suit like the one she wore would be laughed off the beach, but it got Kellerman arrested for indecency. (The judge threw the case out after Kellerman argued that her type of suit was essential for allowing unrestricted movement when swimming.)

By 1920, suits had become even less restrictive, as more female athletes began to embrace swimming. As a necessity, bathing suits became lighter. Most suits, for both sexes, consisted of a knitted wool tank-style top over shorts.

1905 bathing costume 1920


Knitted wool disappeared in 1935 when a California manufacturer introduced suits made from an elastic/satin blend. Suits immediately became much more comfortable. Meanwhile, men began to go topless for the first time, but not without incident. One manager of a New Jersey beach declared “we’ll have no gorillas on my beach.”

1900 Mens 1930 Mens


The next big advance came in the early WWII years, when the US government passed legislation for a 10% reduction in the fabric content of woman’s swim wear as part of the war effort. Naturally, the only way they could do this was by removing the mid section of the one-piece costume, thus introducing the two-piece. Displaying the navel, however, was still considered vulgar (and obscene by some,) so the new suits were designed to show no more than four inches between the bottom of the top and the top of the bottom.

1935 1946


That view lasted until just after WWII, when bikinis came along. The Vatican, never without an opinion, condemned them from the start because of the indecent amount of skin they displayed; indeed, it took about 10 years for them to gain full acceptance, but by 1956, they were the new suits of choice (the shot below is from 1960.) Since then, the trend has been for smaller and smaller suits. A bathing suit in 1900 used around nine yards of fabric, while one of today’s bikinis can be made with as little as 1.5 yards, or even less, should your desires run toward shock and awe.


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