History of Swimwear: Suited Up From The 1800s To Today

June 23, 2014 • Haute Historian, Magazine

History of Swimwear, Swimsuits, Bikini, Marilyn Monre, Farrah Fawcett

This is the time of year when we are inundated with swimwear, from patterns and colors to cut and style…there are so many from which to choose. Bathing suit shopping didn’t always come with options. From the 1800s until now, bathing suits have managed to change as much as fashion.

Imagine attempting to swim in a dress. Women did just that in the 1800s, when everyday dress required full coverage. Women’s swimming dresses were long and tunic-like, with full-length sleeves and high necklines. Society must have realized that they weren’t realistic for the water because by the late-1800s, knee-length bloomers under shorter tunics were popular. The early 1900s brought along sportier looks. Swimming became recognized as a sport and shorter, slimmer suits offered more mobility and comfort in the water.

The 1920s are famous for daring, new styles that defied the social norms of the previous decades. As dresses started to get shorter, swimsuit lengths became enforced by law in many states. Women couldn’t wear suits that came six inches above their knees, and swimsuits were still one piece. In 1922, a woman in Chicago was arrested for not wearing the required coverage.

Styles began to change in the next decade. Suits could be shorter and tighter and they featured cut­-outs, low backs and little skirts attached to a bustier. Picture the infamous bombshell or pin-up look. Two­­-pieces made an appearance in the 40s, but their skirts still covered the belly button.

1946 came around and with “It” French designer Louis Reard’s two­-piece bikini. With its triangle top and bottoms that landed just below the belly-button, the new style made quite the sensation. Reard debuted the suit on an exotic dancer because he couldn’t find a model who would be willing to wear it. Bathing suits would be changed forever. After then two–piece bikinis were the norm, although their respective styles would continue to change according to the fashion of the time.

The 50s brought on more structured pieces to support curves, suits in the 60s featured bright colors and psychedelic prints, while a high cut was favored in the 1980s. And with an emphasis on retro styles this summer, who knows what the future of bathing suits will bring?

–Tanisha Wallis

1. Woman wearing a swimming dress and stockings for swimming, 1898
2. Woman whose bathing suit is being measured, 1920s
3. First Bikini by French designer Louis Reard, 1946
4. Marilyn Monroe in a polka-dot bikini, 1951
5. Farrah Fawcett’s iconic red bathing suit photo, 1976. Photograph by Bruce McBroom

Image Layout: Second City Style

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