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How Swimwear Has Changed in the Last 100 Years

One of the greatest things about fashion is its evolution, how our clothes and styles change dramatically as time passes. Jeans might get skinnier. Blouses might become more flared. Coats might taper more. Ruffles, stripes, herringbone…trends come and go in the blink of an eye.

And virtually nowhere is this change more apparent than swimwear. Here we chart some of the major developments in swimwear, from bikinis to heavy woolen garments (yes, wool!) to ergonomic swimsuits and back to bikinis again.

A brief (ancient) history of swimwear

A painting from ancient Rome depicting women in bikinis.

Before looking into recent swimwear style changes, it’s important to go back even further, to Ancient Greek and Roman times.

Both civilizations were known for their bathhouses and various paintings and depictions of the time show women wearing two-piece tops and briefs that look an awful lot like bikinis.

As time wore on, it was very common to swim naked. This was the preferred swimwear for many.

However, skip ahead to the 17th and 18th centuries and dominant cultures like Victorian England had a very different idea of how men and women should dress, preaching modesty and purity over skimpiness.

What’s more, most fashionable ladies of the time despised tanning. Some even tied weights to their swimming gowns so that their legs wouldn’t be exposed.

1900-1950: Getting Some Skin in the Game

At the beginning of the 20th century, women started to ditch their body-length swim attire in favor of one-piece bathing suits, which were more fashionable and more practical; they could actually swim in them for starters.

However, lots of swimwear of this era was made from wool, a very impractical, heavy, absorbent material. Perhaps the most famous was Jantzen, a small American knittery that made what they referred to as a “swimming suit”, a term previously foreign. Their “red diving girl” billboard became famous.

One of the famous Jantzen billboards, circa 1920.

Speedo leapt to the front of the swimwear technology pile in the 1930s, when they started using silk, which was clearly a more suitable, lighter fabric for swimming. The 1932 Olympics showcased this type of swimsuit for the first time and unsurprisingly, it had immediate success.  

Unfortunately, silk was (and still is) an expensive material, which remained unaffordable to most people, and synthetic fibres like rayon (an artificial silk), nylon and spandex had not been invented yet.  

1950-2000: Bikinis and Drag Reduction

Post World War II, people were able to focus more on peak athleticism. Competitive athletes and coaches were looking for an optimal swimsuit at the same time as man-made fabrics – nylon in particular – became cheaper and more comfortable.

Swimming was a big business and swimwear became a hot topic, not so much in a fashion sense but due to the drag it created in the water. This desire for swimwear that could cling to the body and offers support and stability is still very prevalent today.

As competitive swimwear was being vastly improved, the bikini was coming back into fashion after its 2000+ year hiatus.

If you like bikinis, you’ve got Frenchman Louis Reard to thank. In 1946, he unveiled his racy bikini design at a fashion event in Paris. Legend has it that no decent model would go near the thing, so he hired a stripper. It proved controversial to say the least. Spain and Italy even banned them for a while.

However, bikinis continued to gain popularity in the 1950s. Iconic actress Brigitte Bardot (also French) made headlines when she wore one to the Cannes Film Festival in 1953, and in some of her movies.

French-born actor Brigitte Bardot wears a white bikini and stands on a rocky beach in a still from the film, ‘The Girl in the Bikini’, directed by Willy Rozier, 1958. (Photo by Atlantis Films/Pictorial Parade/Courtesy of Getty Images)

Which brings us to the 1960s, the decade of liberation, Playboy, the first Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, and in general, much more acceptance of the bikini.

One-piece swimsuits also became racier, accentuating legs and curves and paving the way for Baywatch-esque swimsuits, which were cut high on the hips and low around the breasts

2000-today and beyond

Today, the swimwear industry is all about choice. You’ve got so many styles at your disposal.

If you’re all about style and love a good bikini, there are so many options available to you, with entire swimwear style guides devoted to helping you pick the perfect one.

 

And for those looking for a functional swimsuit, swimwear materials and designs are constantly being innovated; Speedo has an all-in-one bodysuit designed to mimic the movement of a shark.

As for what the future holds, only time will tell. However, you can stay informed about the latest swimwear trends in this great post here. Otherwise, we hope you hit the beach or pool flaunting some great swimwear styles this summer!

 

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