A Brief History of Women's Swimsuits: an Evolution of Function and Style

Written By : Sarah January

Photo by CJ, Graphic by Diana Noko

Photo by CJ, Graphic by Diana Noko

Since ancient times people have been drawn to the element of water as it is the source of all life. In addition to being necessary for survival, humans also have used water to provide things like exercise, entertainment, and just good plain fun. As a result, swimming has become a favorite  pastime for humans the world over and therefore has opened up an entire new category when it comes to clothing. Granted, there was a time when skinny dipping was probably the only way to do it, but these days women especially have endless choices when it comes to swimwear. This article is going to take a look back in time and examine how swimsuits have gone from being full length gowns to the itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny-yellow-polka-dot bikinis we see today.

Ancient Times to 1700’s - Nakedness Reigns 

Playing in the water has been a hobby for millenia, though during this time history shows us that it was mostly done while naked and this is true across various cultures. At the same time, as time progressed, it spawned the first use of “swimming costumes”. Though most ancient cultures accepted nudity as just a way of life, with the rise of organized religion and ‘enlightened’ thinking, showing off your body that way (especially for females), slowly became more and more unacceptable. Up until the 18th century these swimming costumes for women were by description rather large and bulky as well as heavy and unattractive. Men of course were allowed to wear a little bit less as it was at times acceptable for them to show their chests and some places still allowed them to swim in the nude. Women during this time were not so lucky, and things did not really even start to change until the 1800’s.

1800’s- The Bathing Gown 

The 1800’s marked a time where swimming and recreation at beaches and lakes really began to grow in popularity. As such, the clothing designs began to change when it came to what women were allowed to wear. Instead of the super heavy and bulky swimming costumes of the previous centuries, the bathing gown was initially introduced. Smock shaped, ankle-length gowns made of flannel or wool were designed to protect the woman’s modesty at all costs. Some beach goers even went so far as to sew stones into the hem of the gown in order to keep it from rising when they entered the water. Can’t have anyone taking a peek at those dainty little ankles, now can we? It was not until about half way through the century the ‘double suit” was introduced which consisted of a shortened gown and a long pair of bloomers to go underneath. As modesty was such a big part of the social norm during this time, some places even dictated that men cover up almost head to toe as well. 

1900- 1930 : Swimming Bloomers to “Revealing” One Pieces

Photo by Erin Jeffrey

Photo by Erin Jeffrey

The long bloomers and swimming dresses stayed the norm into the beginning part of the 20th century in the majority of the western world. However in countries like France, swimwear began to transform with losing the sleeves and shortening the bloomers to the knee. So scandalous! The shortening of these swimming bloomers came at a price, however. Some places even measured the length of  a woman’s bloomers to ensure that they were not too high. I’m talking about pulling out the ruler and everything! Despite the concerns of the public, swimwear continued to change. Part of this was due to the rise in popularity of American beauty pageants that featured a swimming costume portion. The conservative public looked down upon these contests and found them distasteful. This did not change until 1921 with the debut of the first Miss America pageant.

During this time swimwear really began to transform and become more form-fitting and revealing, as well as bringing changes in material and colors. The first really form fitting suits were produced during the 1930’s. Arms and legs were set free from any type of sleeve and the bottoms of the suits came up as high as the thighs. It was during this time that the material changed to Lastex, the predecessor to the polyester and nylon blends we wear today. Swimsuits were also changing into colors and more designs, as previously they had only been black or dark colors. 

1940’s - 1990’s-  Bikinis, Monokinis, and Hip Baring Suits

Photo by Erin Jeffrey

Photo by Erin Jeffrey

The 1940’s brought us the bikini. Designed by Louis Reard and Jaques Heim in 1946 , the modern bikini was actually born somewhat out of necessity. Due to rationing of food and materials as a result of World War II, normal quantities of certain materials were in short supply. Therefore logic would dictate less available fabric equals smaller swimsuits. They named the design Bikini Atoll, after a location in the Marshall Islands where atomic bomb testing took place. Though the idea of two-piece swimwear was not a new one, theoretically it had been   thousands of years since humankind had worn such a small amount of clothing in public. As a result of this, the bikini was rather frowned upon. So much so that bikinis were banned from the Miss World Beauty Pageant for ten years after 1951! 

In the 50’s the bikini slowly became more mainstream and acceptable. How did this happen? Celebrities like Bridgette Bardot and Ava Gardner were photographed wearing bikinis on the beach like it was completely normal. Of course if celebrities wear it, then it must be ok right? Acceptance of the bikini became more common as we moved into the 1960’s. People like Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, Sofia Loren and others rocked the bikini in photographs, on magazine covers, and even on TV and in the movies. As a result, the bikini finally became mainstream and acceptable during this time, and also spawned another category of swimsuit known as the monokini. Monokinis are kind of a cross between a bikini and your standard one piece. They usually feature strategically placed cut-outs that often give the body an accentuated hourglass shape. These grew in popularity as well and the materials and prints that were being designed grew by the day. Though the 70’s and 80’s, things like fringe, crochet, and big bold patterns, especially those reminiscent of the Hawaiian Islands grew in popularity. In the 1990’s designers decided to get more daring by taking the sides of your average one piece, and raising them sky high, in theory giving the wearer the illusion of longer legs. Women in the latter part of the century becoming obsessed with swimsuits of this nature for largely one reason- Can anyone say Baywatch???

21st Century : Anything Goes 

Photo by CJ

Photo by CJ

Around the turn of the century it appeared that swimwear, bikinis in particular, began to get smaller and more revealing. This is where we see the rise of the string bikini, as well as thong swimsuits. These types of barely there swimsuits made their way into beauty pageants and onto the covers of magazines like Sports Illustrated. Models like Tyra Banks, Elle McPherson, and Heidi Klum have all graced the covers of SI and done so in bikinis that arguably resemble lingerie more than swimwear. During this time, people started to notice that these tiny swimsuits did often come at a cost—a woman’s self-esteem and confidence with her body. Though some started to pick up on this, not many took it all that seriously—until now. 

In the year 2019, you can get away with just about anything when it comes to what you wear to the beach or pool. I have noticed a slight turn away from some of the more overly revealing styles and a rise in more of the covered yet cute styles of the past. High waisted swimsuits are everywhere you look this summer, in just about any color or pattern you can imagine. There is also a rising occurence of body positive movements that take into consideration the unrealistic and somewhat ridiculous beauty standards often associated with wearing swimsuits. Companies such as Target, Adidas, and Dove have added more body positive campaigns to their marketing, and this includes swimwear. Even the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue has put plus size models, like the gorgeous Ashley Grahm, on their cover in the last few years. So this just goes to show that in 2019, you can rock the teeny tiny bikini, a sexy one piece, or be covered head to toe in whatever swimsuit you want, and still be beautiful. That evolution is really one to be celebrated. 


Sarah January selfie

Sarah january

Sarah is a California girl who has a slight obsession with all things historical in nature or travel related. In addition to her love of history and culture, she has a passion for health and fitness and is also a hardcore bibliophile with an ever growing book collection. Since finishing her Master’s Degree in 2015, she has become a teacher who is growing her career as a writer. When she isn’t teaching or honing her writing skills, you can find her with her nose in a new book, binge watching Supernatural, or planning her next getaway to the beach. If you want to talk about writing, books, history, travel, Disney movies, puppies...or anything in between, feel free to connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and IG.