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The Fascinating History of Bathing Suits

bathing suits swimwear

Bathing is a sport enjoyed by great and small in suits of any sort, though better none at all (anonymous, 19th century poem).

It was in the early 1800's that people began to flock to the beaches for seaside amusement. Along with this new outdoor pastime came the need for a stylish garment for the privileged lady of fashion. Here we will follow the path of the history of swimwear, which began long before the modern day bikini.

18th Century: Although sea bathing was fashionable in the 18th century, it was considered proper to keep the skin white and untouched by the sun.  Ladies bathed in bathing machines, a sort of cabana on wheels. Ladies 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.

Mid 19th Century: Bathing suits covered most of the female figure.  The typically wore long bloomers and "paletot" dresses made from a heavy flannel fabric which would weigh down the swimwear.  At ocean resorts where the water was very shallow near the beach, people undressed in little houses on wheels, which were drawn out into deep water by horses and hauled back to shore when the bath was finished. After the horse would haul the cabana into the ocean, the 19th century women would change from her layers of petticoats and dress into another layer of swimwear.  Later a hood was added to the contraption to allow the female in a soaking wet flannel dress to emerge from the water unseen.

1890's: Women typically dressed in black, knee-length, puffed-sleeve wool dresses, often featuring a sailor collar, and worn over bloomers or drawers trimmed with ribbons and bows.  The bathing costume was typically accessorised with long black stockings, fancy lace-up bathing slippers and fancy caps.  Bathing slippers were very necessary, especially on stony beaches to protect from broken glass, oyster shells and pebbles.  These beach shoes were made of soles of twisted straw or felt with embroidered serge or crash tops and laces.

1900's: By the end of the 19th century people were flocking to the oceanside beaches for popular seaside activities.  The clumsy Victorian-style bathing costumes were becoming burdensome.  A need for a new style of bathing suit that retained modesty but was free enough to allow the young lady to engage in swimming was obvious.

1910: The bathing suits no longer camouflaged the contours of the female body.  The yards of fabric used in Victorian bathing skirts and bloomers were reduced to show a little more of the figure and to allow for exposure to the sun.

1915: Up until the first decades of the 20th century, the only activity for women in the ocean involved jumping through waves while holding onto a rope attached to an offshore bouy. By 1915, women athletes started to share the actual sport of swimming with men and thus began to reduce the amount of heavy fabric used in their billowing swimsuits.

1920's: By the early 1920's women's bathing suits were reduced to a one piece garment with a long top that covered shorts.  Though matching stockings were still worn, vintage swimwear began to shrink and more and more flesh was exposed from the bottom of the trunks to the tops of the stockings.

Extract from Victoriana Magazine 


While two-piece suits were common in the years leading up to World War II, they usually covered a woman's navel and left only a bit of midriff visible.  In 1946, French designer Louis Reard introduced the world to the first modern bikini, featuring significantly less fabric than its predecessors.  Its name has roots in the war: Reard was inspired to name his two-piece after a newsworthy US atomic test with the name Bikini Atoll.  The new design was so risque that the designer had to hire Micheline Bernardini, a Parisian showgirl, to model it.



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