A brief history of the swimsuit

I wrote a number of academic essays as part of my MA course, and all but one were on lingerie. The remaining piece was on the history of women’s swimwear and I found it so interesting to write that I thought I’d cut it down to the highlights and share with you here. I’ve spared you all the technical details on fabrics and fibres, but might share that in another post, if anyone’s interested.

The British women's 4x100 metre freestyle relay team at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games
The British women’s 4×100 metre freestyle relay team at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games

In the nineteenth century, the practice of sea bathing became popular and was seen to be a cure for many illness. Very little flesh was exposed by early women’s bathing costumes and their skirts, sleeves and stockings would have most certainly hindered any efforts at swimming if it had been attempted, which was highly unlikely. Swimming didn’t become fashionable until the early twentieth century when dress-style bathing costumes were ‘replaced with androgynous unisex swimsuits that emphasised the desirability of a lean, boyish figure’ (Schmidt, 2012: 12). The British women’s 4 x 100 metre freestyle relay team at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games wore racing suits similar to those worn in previous Olympic competitions by the male swimmers. Their lightweight and somewhat transparent silk swimsuits were ‘clearly designed for competition rather than protecting the modesty of the women athletes’ (Williams, 2012: 147) and were knitted by hosiery manufacturers in Leicestershire.

1920s Speedo advert showing Australian swimmer Arne Borg wearing a "Speedo Racer Back Costume."
1920s Speedo advert showing Australian swimmer Arne Borg wearing a “Speedo Racer Back Costume.”

For those who were not Olympic swimmers, the knitted woollen one-piece costume first appeared around 1918 and was considered so daring that wearers had to cover up with a wrapover dress which was then discarded at the water’s edge. Silk moiré, crepe de chine, charmeuse, wool jersey and rubberised fabrics were commonly used in swimwear by the early 1920s when sleek beach outfits became an essential component of a fashionable woman’s wardrobe. The fitted jersey one-piece bathing suits of the late 20s were quite daring in comparison to what had come before and, in 1928, the Australian MacRae Knitting Mills renamed itself Speedo and launched its racerback swimsuit design.

Swimming costumes became smaller and tighter in the 1930s, with elastic fibres like Lastex being used to create smooth lines and give women a more athletic looking shape. The top of these swimsuits became increasingly low cut at the front and back, to allow for maximum exposure to the sun while on the beach. In the mid-30s, designers worked to create a costume with a back which allowed for maximum sun exposure whilst also being practical for swimming. ‘Cross straps, which could be removed while sunbathing under the new sunlamps or on the beach, became popular on low-backed suits’ (Probert, 1981: 30). The two-piece costume first appeared in Vogue in 1935, and playsuits were also popular beach wear in this decade.

A parade of glamorous 1950s bathing suits
A parade of glamorous 1950s bathing suits

After World War II, the ever popular one-piece swimming costume – also known as a maillot – became frillier, ruched and more feminine. The two-piece swimming costume became known as the bikini in 1946 and, despite being considered quite scandalous at the time, it still provided women with a lot of coverage by today’s standards. Even the more daring Australian designs still covered the navel. Rayon was widely used in swimwear at this time with waffled piqué, linen and velour all used for ‘sunning suits’. By the late 50s, swimwear was tight and figure-hugging made from drip-dry cottons, Terylene, nylon and Lastex woven with lurex.

In the 1960s, the trendy young influence of London’s Carnaby Street and King’s Road was clear in all aspects of fashion, even swimwear. The bikini gained popularity after Ursula Andress appeared wearing one in a key scene of the 1962 James Bond film Dr No and, as the decade progressed, the bikini became smaller and one-piece swimsuits gained cut out shapes. The development of new nylon fibres and improvement of printing techniques for nylon jersey opened up the world of swimwear design to new ideas. Swimwear designs became smaller into the 1970s – with the tiny Tanga style hitting the beaches of Rio in 1974 – as the desire for sun exposure really took hold. While the legs were the focus and scandal of 1920s swimwear, the back was revealed in the 30s and the navel in the 60s, ‘the focus in the 1970s shifted to the thighs and buttocks’ (Schmidt, 2012: 17).

A classic 1980s high cut swimsuit, as seen on TV show Baywatch
A classic 1980s high cut swimsuit, as seen on TV show Baywatch

However, it wasn’t all about fashion. ‘The racing swimsuit has also filtered into fashion in both its style and its fabric technology. In 1973 the East German women’s Olympic swimming team cast off their old-style nylon swimsuits for second skin resistance-free spandex suits and took seconds off Olympic records’ (McKenzie, 1997: 94). However, Lycra was only used in the most expensive swimwear ranges at first, not reaching the lower end of the market until the 1980s when the cut of swimming costumes also changed to the high leg which exposed the hip bone. The 1990s and early 2000s saw a surge in women’s participation in active sports with their sports clothing being designed with differences in physiology in mind rather than any social restrictions.

There were many unisex developments around this time too, especially in performance swimwear. In 1996, Speedo introduced the Aquablade, a water-repellent drag-reducing swimming costume. They were at the forefront of swimwear technology again in 2000 with their use of biomimetics – textile functions which mimic nature – in their Fastskin suit, replicating the textured surface of a shark’s skin to better channel water over the body of a swimmer. Not every woman who buys swimwear is an athlete, however, but there are also developments that benefit the consumer who views her swimwear as beach clothing. Ultraviolet protection can be incorporated into clothing by use of dark colours, heavy fabrics with denser construction, naturally resistant fibres (e.g. polyester), and special treatments.

The sun protection factors that are usually associated with sun creams can now be applied to textiles and identified on the product labelling, with UPF ratings indicating how much the material reduces UV exposure. Speedo’s Scubasuit has a UPF of over 30, wet or dry whereas Sun Select fabric from Triumph blocks only the harmful UVB rays, allowing the safer UVA rays to penetrate so that the wearer can gain an all-over tan whilst clothed. Increased knowledge of the harmful effects of the sun’s rays – themselves increased by climate change – may eventually end up encouraging a return to neck-to-knee swimwear as a form of protection made, of course, with high UPF fabrics.

McKenzie, J. (1997) The Best In Sportswear Design. London: Batsford.
Probert, C. (1981) Swimwear in Vogue since 1910. London: Thames and Hudson.
Schmidt, C. (2012) The Swimsuit: Fashion from poolside to catwalk. London: Berg.
Williams, J. (2012) ‘Aquadynamics and the Athletocracy: Jennie Fletcher and the British Women’s 4 x 100 metre Freestyle Relay Team at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games’ in Costume Vol.46 No.2, pp.145-164.

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