Swimsuits Throughout History: Swimwear for Women, Men & Competition
As warm summer months approach, men and women all over the world begin their annual hunt for the perfect swimsuit. While swimsuit fashions change from year to year, you may not realize just how long and interesting the history of swimsuits is.
This article gives you a look at the history of women’s and men’s swimsuits, taking you on a time-traveling journey from ancient times up to today. Grab your beach bag and get ready to learn the history of swimsuits!
Ritual bathing was common practice during ancient times all the way up to the 18th century. Bathhouses provided healing, respite and community. However, ancient bathing has less in common with modern day swimming than it does with hot tub or spa usage. Ancient people did not swim recreationally but bathed for health and wellness. Therefore, swimwear was uncommon as most users bathed fully nude.
At the beginning of the 18th century, culture shifted towards modesty, driving new restrictions on women’s clothing and criminalizing nudity. Furthermore, recreational swimming was not in the lexicon. Instead, it was known as bathing or sea-bathing, and the bathers were separated by sex. Form beat out function in this era with heavy, often dangerous bathing suit styles described below.
Women’s bathing suits:
The people of that day called women’s swimsuits “bathing gowns,” and they were frequently made of linen. These bathing gowns featured long sleeves and fell to the woman’s ankles. If a woman wanted to ensure modesty, she would sew weights along the bottom of the bathing gown to prevent it from floating up in the water and exposing her calves.
Men’s bathing suits:
Until the early 20th century when men began advocating for the right to go bare-chested, men’s swimsuit styles largely remained the same throughout history. Designers used wool as a fabric, and the popular style was a one-piece garment with the legs and arms cut out.
During the 1800s, sea-bathing became the fashionable hobby. While modesty remained the leading driver, this era is considered the precursor to the two-piece bathing suit. But buyer beware - women’s bathing suits of that day in no way reflected the two-piece suits of the future!
In contrast, women’s bathing suits in the 1800s were made of wool so that the fabric wouldn’t cling to the wearer’s body. But instead of one long gown, these suits were made in two pieces: a long gown that was layered over a pair of ankle-length trousers. If you think that sounds heavy, you’re right. Women at that time would wade out into the ocean while holding onto a rope tied to a buoy to keep them from drowning in their bulky suits. Furthermore, women entered the sea using a bathing machine to further insure modesty.
In the mid-1800s bloomer suits with shortened trousers and short-sleeve tunics became all the rage (women had to wear stockings and shoes because showing their legs was still forbidden). The suits were named after women’s rights advocate Amelia Bloomer.
Unfortunately, bloomer suits were still made with heavy fabrics such as wool, flannel, or canvas, but toward the end of the century, the style transitioned to sailor-style suits made of lighter fabrics.
In the early 1900s, the bathing suit history timeline took an adventurous turn because of an Australian swimmer named Annette Kellermann. Kellermann was the first woman to attempt to swim across the English Channel. Her passion and courage led her to design a one-piece, form-fitting swimsuit that was more aerodynamic than the bulky, heavy swimsuit styles of that day. Known as the “Annette Kellermann,” these one-piece suits changed swimwear forever.
In 1912, the history of swimsuits at the Olympics began when the Games introduced women’s swimming as an event. This competition increased interest in the sport and a demand for more functional, aerodynamic swimsuits. As a result, sleeveless tunics layered over shorts became the swimsuit style of the day. Women began to go without the stockings that had always been a part of bathing suits.
During this era, the term “bathing suit” gave way to “swimming suits” as Portland swimwear company Jantzen coined the term to represent the sleeker silhouettes of its suits. These tank suits were made from ribbed Jersey and were form-fitting. The shorts worn underneath the tunics were shorter than they had been in the past.
Women’s swimming suits:
Women who wore the Jantzen suits were subject to swimsuit policing on some beaches. When Swimsuit Police thought a woman’s shorts were too short, they pulled out a tape measure to ensure that she was in compliance with local rules. If she wasn’t, she was issued a citation or taken to jail.
Men’s swimming suits:
When looking at the history of bathing suits in the 1920s, men’s suits were almost identical to women’s. The men’s suits were made of wool or ribbed cotton and came in the same bright colors as women’s suits: red, orange, yellow and blue. But unlike women’s suits, many men’s designs included a white belt that helped secure the shorts to their body. Both men and women continued to wear shoes with swimsuits.
The 1930s ushered in a new era in bathing suit history. The Maillot style of swimwear, which was the first commercial one-piece swimsuit, became the iconic look of the decade. A company named Lastex invented a thin fabric that gave support to women in the form of girdles and bras. In a huge departure from formerly wool swimsuits, this new fabric was shiny and sleek.
Women in the 30s showed more skin than in previous years, too: The suits had lower backs and necklines and higher cut legs. Women’s swimsuits varied in styles from one color to multicolor stripes. Some swimsuits even included sea creature and marine-themed appliques!
Men’s bathing suits evolved during this time, too. The most popular swimsuit consisted of two pieces, shorts with a crab-back top. The top was generously cut out around the arms and the neck to allow for easy swimming. Stripes were a popular pattern and many suits included a white belt.
This is the decade that started the two-piece bathing suit revolution. It was during World War II, and the U.S. government regulated a 10% reduction in the amount of fabric used in swimsuits to deal with wartime shortages. Therefore, designers had to work with the materials they had, thus beginning the history of the two-piece swimsuit. However, the fashion piece didn’t truly take off until 1946.
In 1946, French designer Louis Reard wanted to debut his new creation: a two-piece swimsuit he called the Bikini. During those days he had trouble finding a model who would wear the skimpy bathing suit because it was so revealing. Eventually he hired nude casino dancer Micheline Bernardini, who was only 18. She modeled the swimwear and received more than 50,000 fan letters after the photo of her in the bikini went international.
Women weren’t the only ones losing fabric. In the 1930s, men began taking the tops off their swimsuits, and in the 40s, it became commonplace to do so. What remained was a high-waisted bottom with low-cut legs made of Lastex fabric with a white belt for fashionable flair.
In 1953, Brigitte Bardot went to the Cannes Film Festival to promote the movie, “The Girl in the Bikini.” She entered the festival as an unknown but left as an international sex symbol. Why? Because she boldly wore a floral bikini on the beach during the festival, catching the lens of every paparazzi and movie fan in the area.
After the initial debut of the bikini and the adoption of the style on stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Jayne Mansfield and Grace Kelly, it quickly caught on, and women in the 1950s flocked to the design. In 1951, Marilyn Monroe was photographed wearing a polka dot bikini and the trend was solidified in fashion.
Gone were men’s swimsuits with belts. They were replaced with wide elastic bands. Men’s suits came in two styles during this decade: briefs and boxers. Some came with support and a pocket for coins. Also in style were Cabana sets which consisted of printed boxers with a matching shirt oftentimes with a Hawaiian theme.
In 1960, the hit song “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” was released, and the polka dot trend was reignited. In addition to polka dots, women’s swimsuits were adorned with bold patterns. The bikini bottoms fell just below the navel and the tops came in various styles.
Another trend from the 1960s was the baby doll swimsuit. It had bottoms that rode the hips and a (usually) sheer-at-the-bottom baby doll top. The fabrics of the day were Nylon and Lycra, which made the suits form-fitting. The 60s also saw a lot of ruffles on swimsuits.
Peter Travis will forever be remembered as bringing in the much loved (and hated) Speedo swimsuit for men during the 1960s. Men’s swimwear manufacturers produced bathing suits from unexpected fabrics such as denim, terry cloth and corduroy and often included groovy psychedelic patterns during this decade.
In 1974, California passed a law that outlawed nude sunbathing, and fashion designer, Rudi Gernreich responded by creating the thong bikini bottom. With the women’s liberation movement gaining traction, the 1970s ushered in a new era for women and therefore women’s swimsuits: think thongs, string bikinis, and exposure of a lot more skin. Swimwear became smaller while women’s liberation grew to new heights.
During the 1970s, a new style of men’s swimwear called “sports shorts” became popular as it doubled as athletic gear for sports. Sports shorts featured a tulip-style leg and two-inch short length. Another hugely popular style was a straight-leg short with pockets called the “fixed waist” suit.
If you could use one word to describe the bathing suits of the 1980s, it would be “drama.” The over-the-top styles of the decade are reflected in 80s swimwear: animal prints, neon colors, and color blocking. Bikini bottoms and one-piece suits had high leg cutouts and low plunging necklines. Swimwear, much like the women in the 1980s, was opulent and over-the-top.
Women in the 1980s could mix and match their bikini tops and bottoms to create a swimsuit just for them. There was an explosion in the types of fabrics and styles, too. Some fabrics included sun protection while others had rash guards to protect the wearer.
The men’s swimwear style of the 1980s was boxer shorts which featured bold colors and prints. The Speedo suit had a resurgence in the 1980s as gym culture grew and men wanted to show off their physiques.
When you think of 1990s swimsuits, you probably think of athletic-style suits, (very) high-cut legs, red one-pieces in a nod to Baywatch, tie bikini bottoms, cutouts, clear plastic panel inserts, shiny material, and tankinis. These looks were inspired by the public’s affinity for surf culture.
The surf culture invaded men’s swimwear during this decade as well. Most of the men wore loose-fitting longboard shorts to swim.
Advances in technology made the 2000s the apex of competitive swimwear. New fabrics, techniques and styles pioneered by brands like Speedo made competitive swimmers faster than ever.
On the recreational side, some iconic swimsuit styles for women from the 2000s were halter tops, bikinis with hoop accents and swimwear with funky patterns like hearts, stars or brand logos.
Swimwear for men included athletic styles like boardshorts, tropical prints like Hawaiian flowers and sporty colors like blues and grays.
Today’s swimsuit styles, like in other eras, reflect the times. Body positivity and uniqueness for both men and women drive the styles of today. At the beach or at the pool, today’s trends are all about self-expression and finding out what swimsuit feels right for you. If a suit makes you feel positive, confident and empowered you’ve found the perfect swimsuit!
The Swimsuit Throughout History
Bathing suit history reflects the times in which the styles were worn and the personality of the wearer. Swimwear has changed dramatically through the years, but one thing remains the same – fashion and swimming go hand in hand. The beach or pool is your place to have fun with your look and express your personal style. Not sure what is your personal style? Get some ideas before your next event by taking our pool party outfit quiz!
Want to see some of our favorite pool party outfits ever? Check out our Pool Party Outfit Pinterest Board!