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The Evolution of Women’s Swimwear: A Deep Dive Through History

Let’s dive into the history of women’s swimwear, where the evolution of beachside fashion tells a story much richer than simple trends and seasonal colors. This history lesson isn't just about the transformation from modest bathing suits to the daring bikinis of today; it reflects the societal shifts and anthropological and technological breakthroughs of an entire product category. As we explore the evolution of swimwear from the modest 19th century to our eco-conscious present, we'll uncover pivotal moments and styles that shaped the swimwear styles we know and love today. Join us as we navigate the tides of change, spotlighting the trailblazers who redefined what it means to hit the beach in style, comfort, and conscience.


Late 19th Century: Modest Beginnings


An illustration of 2 women and 2 young girls wearing bathing dresses with trousers in the ocean in the late 1800s.
Bathing dresses and pantaloons from the late 1800s.

Initially, swimwear wasn't about making a splash but rather about wading through societal expectations with as much fabric as possible. Bathing machines discreetly rolled women to the water's edge, preserving modesty until the very last. The late 1800s introduced us to bathing dresses, heavy woolen gowns with pantaloons that made swimming a problematic endeavor. These garments were less about swim and more about modesty.


The Victorian era saw the introduction of the princess suit, which featured a blouse attached to trousers. It was slightly more practical but still made of excessive fabric and heavy wool – definitely not your best swimming attire. The colors were also kept dark to hide any evidence of getting wet. It was a time when swimwear was an oxymoron—neither particularly suited for swimming nor particularly wearable out of water.


Roaring 20s & 30s: The Tide Turns


Enter Annette Kellerman, a professional Australian swimmer who made waves by advocating for more practical swimwear. She was arrested for indecency (can we say lame!?) because she chose to wear a form-fitting one-piece swimsuit with shorts and cap sleeves during a race in Boston. Kellerman's rebellion highlighted the tension between tradition and the need for functional swimwear.


Annette Kellerman wearing a form fitting one-piece swimsuit in the 1920s.
Annette Kellerman wearing a form fitting one-piece swimsuit in the 1920s.

But despite her rebellion, change did not come easy. In response to the “skimpier” suits, police began to patrol beaches around different parts of the world to measure the distance between a woman's knee and her suit. Yup, we’re serious—they did this back in the day.


Meanwhile, swimwear began being seen as fashion. In 1921, a popular bathing suit brand, Jantzen,  coined “swimsuit” to describe swimwear. With this, a new category of apparel was born. Along with this came a societal shift to begin viewing swimming, sunbathing, and vacationing as a luxury. Sun-kissed skin was no longer associated with the working class. Therefore, designers like Coco Chanel, Jean Patou, Lanvin, Molyneux, Schiaparelli, and Poiret began designing fashionable swimwear with thin straps and open backs. 


Some material improvements were also made. The invention of Lastex yarn in 1931 was a game-changer; it introduced much-needed elasticity to swimwear. This innovation allowed swimsuits to maintain their shape and fit better, paving the way for synthetic fibers and the eventual introduction of their successor, elastane, in the 1960s.


Post-War 40s & 50s: The Birth of the Bikini

A woman smiling for a picture wearing the first ever bikini in 1946
A woman wearing the first ever bikini designed by Louis Réard in 1946.

1946 was an explosive year for swimwear. During World War II, clothing manufacturers were forced to ration fabric. This may have inspired two designers to craft more revealing styles. Jacques Heim and Louis Réard both created two-piece swimsuits within the same year. Knowing the design would be explosive, Réard named his design after the Bikini Atoll islands where nuclear experiments were taking place. The name stuck. 



Despite initial controversy, the bikini began to gain acceptance, propelled by Hollywood's embrace of the female form and Brigitte Bardot's iconic bikini moments on the big screen. In 1952, Bardot starred in Manina, The Girl in the Bikini. She was among the first women to sport a bikini on the big screen. In 1956, she appeared on screen in a bikini again in And God Created Women. These appearances brought the bikini into mainstream media, thus beginning the garment’s transition from outrageous and shocking to everyday.


Swinging 60s & 70s: A Time of Experimentation


Times were changing in the 1960s and 1970s. Fueled by the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, anti-war protests, and counterculture, this era underwent a massive revolution. 


A model posing wearing a topless monokini designed by Rudi Gernreich
A model wearing a monokini designed by Rudi Gernreich in 1964.

Freedom and experimentation were needed everywhere, including in the swimwear industry. In 1964, the designer Rudi Gernreich launched his iconic monokini. The first topless one-piece garment consisted of slim-fitting high-waisted bottoms held in place by thin halter-neck straps. The trikini also became popular, essentially a bikini top and bottom connected with a third piece down the center. It looks similar to a modern-day one-piece with side cutouts. But the experimentation didn’t start there. In response to women’s liberation and the sexual revolution, the thong bikini also emerged further challenging conventional modesty. Swimwear became a symbol of freedom and rebellion, with designs that left little to the imagination.


This era also introduced the world to bright and colorful psychedelic prints.


80s & 90s: Sporty and High-Cut


Pamela Anderson wearing her iconic red one-piece high leg swimsuit in Baywatch.
Pamela Anderson wearing her iconic red one-piece high leg swimsuit in Baywatch.

The 80s and 90s brought athleticism, Hollywood, and high glamour to swimwear. The fitness craze of the '80s, epitomized by the popularity of aerobics, influenced swimwear designs to incorporate more supportive and performance-oriented features. High-cut leg openings, which elongated the legs and emphasized athleticism, became a defining trend. Materials like spandex and Lycra allowed for swimwear that was not only flattering but functional, catering to an active lifestyle.


Television and pop culture significantly shaped swimwear trends during these decades. The iconic red one-piece swimsuits worn by the cast of "Baywatch" epitomized the era's swimwear aesthetic, combining sportiness with sex appeal. This period also saw the emergence of luxury swimwear brands that blended high fashion with beachwear, introducing elements like metallic fabrics, strategic cutouts, and embellishments that elevated swimwear to statement pieces.


The 21st Century: Inclusivity and Sustainable Fashion


Three women smiling wearing the same white, teal, and navy colorblocked one-piece swimsuit. The women are different sizes and skintones.
Summersalt celebrating body diversity by showcasing their swimwear on various body types.

Today, the swimwear narrative is one of inclusivity and sustainability. Brands embrace all body types and push for eco-friendly materials, reflecting a broader societal shift towards acceptance and environmental consciousness. This era is defined by a celebration of diversity and individuality, with designs that cater to every body shape, size, and style. Here's a spotlight on some trailblazers in the industry who are making waves with their forward-thinking approaches.


Champions of Body Inclusivity


Summersalt: Summersalt is making waves with its data-backed approach to fit, offering a wide range of sizes based on body measurements from 10,000 women. Their swimsuits are designed for comfort, movement, and confidence, ensuring every woman can find her perfect beach-ready look.


Swimsuits For All: As the name suggests, Swimsuits For All is dedicated to inclusivity, offering an extensive range of sizes from 4 to 40. The brand collaborates with celebrities like Ashley Graham to design collections that are fashionable and accessible to everyone, truly embodying the principle that swimwear is for all.


Girlfriend Collective: Known for its eco-friendly activewear, Girlfriend Collective also offers a range of swimwear made from recycled materials. Their commitment to size inclusivity is evident, with sizes ranging from XXS to 6XL, ensuring that every body finds their perfect fit.


Pioneers in Sustainability


Vitamin A: This brand is a pioneer in sustainable swimwear, using EcoLux fabric—a blend of recycled nylon—to create stylish and eco-friendly pieces. Vitamin A emphasizes environmental responsibility and chic design, proving that you don't have to sacrifice style for sustainability.


Mara Hoffman: Mara Hoffman is committed to sustainable materials and practices, including the use of ECONYL®, a 100% regenerated nylon fiber made from fishnets and other nylon waste. Her swimwear line stands out for its bold colors and prints, offering a stylish and sustainable choice for eco-conscious fashionistas.


Boden: A British brand that has expanded its commitment to ethical fashion into the swimwear sector, Boden utilizes sustainable materials such as recycled polyester in their swimsuits in their bright, sustainably, and stylishly responsible sourcing, Boden swimwear is both stylish and kind to the planet.



Looking Ahead: The Future of Swimwear

As we stand on the precipice of new trends, it's clear that the future of swimwear will continue to be shaped by societal values and technological advancements. We can expect further innovation in materials, designs that celebrate all forms of beauty, and a continued focus on sustainability.


The evolution of swimwear is a testament to fashion's ability to adapt, innovate, and inspire. From woolen gowns to eco-friendly bikinis, swimwear has come a long way, mirroring the shifts in societal norms and values. As we look to the future, one thing is certain: the journey of swimwear is far from over, and I, for one, can't wait to see where the tide takes us next!

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