A Brief and Revealing History of the Swimsuit

In the 1920s, scandalous one-piece swimwear exposed a woman's bare arms and legs. Public Domain/Wikipedia

It may seem strange, but, the development of modern swimsuits can be directly traced back to the early days of the railroads. In the 19th century, as trains made it easier for inland dwellers to journey to oceans and lakes, appropriate clothing for swimming and wading were required for those who frolicked in the water.

For most of recorded history, swimming was done in the nude . Ancient Roman depictions of swimmers show nude swimmers of both genders.

But after much time passed, “civilized” societies put into place strict dress codes to match their sensibilities.

In Bath, England , which known for its water recreations, a 1737 policy required swimwear for both sexes:

It is Ordered Established and Decreed by this Corporation that no Male person above the age of ten years shall at any time hereafter go into any Bath or Baths within this City by day or by night without a Pair of Drawers and a Waistcoat on their bodies. No Female person shall at any time hereafter go into a Bath or Baths within this City by day or by night without a decent Shift on their bodies.

Later that century, in Tobias Smollett’s 1771 epistolary novel "The Expedition of Humphry Clinker,” the author gives a description of female swimwear that was in fashion at the time: The ladies wear jackets and petticoats of brown linen ... but, truly, whether it is owing to the steam that surrounds them, or the heat of the water, or the nature of the dress, or to all these causes together, they look so flushed, and so frightful, that I always turn my eyes another w

woman in bathing suit in 1858
A woman in very covered up as she hits the beach in her bathing suit around 1858. Public Domain/Wikipedia

The Victorian era swept in a flurry of high and puritan morals, and swimming attire did not escape the tide. A 19th century edition of “La Belle Assemblee Fashions” advertised a sample of proper women’s swimsuits: A gown of white French cambric, or pale pink muslin, with sleeves and cuffs of white muslin worn over (trousers) ... which are trimmed the same as the hem of the dress ... with gloves of pale buff kid; and shoes of yellow or white.

The goal of a typical outfit was to completely cover all skin to avoid direct exposure to the sun (no woman wanted a suntan — that was the sign of a common laborer) and hats were included.

Men’s swimsuits during the era were garments that resembled one-piece long underwear.

At the turn of the 20th century, women (shockingly) no longer wore hats or gloves, although the standard attire still covered the torso, arms and legs.

Annette Kellerman
Australian Annette Kellerman was arrested for indecent exposure for performing an early version of water ballet in a tight, revealing swimsuit. Public Domain/Wikipedia

Deviation from such clothing was banned. In 1907, Australian Annette Kellerman went on tour in America with an early version of water ballet. To perform her complex maneuvers easily, she wore a tight swimsuit that exposed her arms and legs and neck. She was promptly arrested in Massachusetts for indecent exposure.

The 1910s was a decade of great transition. Women no longer wore swimsuits with arms or full leg coverings, and women began to look at swimming not just as an occasional recreational pastime but also as an athletic competition. To accommodate the new sport, suits were streamlined to be form-fitting so as not to hinder speed in the water.

The following decade, the Roaring Twenties, saw even more relaxation of women’s swimwear and featured one-piece suits that exposed the arms and legs. These suits would remain the standard attire until 1946 when Louis Réard, a French automobile engineer turned fashion designer, debuted the swimsuit that would last to the present time: the bikini. He named it after the Bikini Atoll, site of nuclear bomb testing, as he stated he expected the fashion to explode on the world’s beaches. He probably had no idea of the longevity and popularity of his design. Sales were steady.

Micheline Bernardini moderling Reard's bikini
Micheline Bernardini models Réard's bikini on July 5, 1946. It was so small it could fit into a tiny (2x2-inch inch) box like the one she is holding. Fair Use/Wikipedia

The popularity of Réard’s swimsuit went massive in the 1960s due to the popular media attention grabbed by Brian Hyland’s 1960 song hit " Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and a string of films starring Annette Funicello that featured her and her female co-stars cavorting on a beach in two-piece swimsuits. And it’s worth noting that 1964 also saw the advent of Sports Illustrated magazine’s landmark swimsuit issue.

Swimwear today, for both women and men, span features from the past centuries. Currently a variety of swimsuits ranging from one-pieces to two-pieces (not to mention no-pieces on naturalist beaches) can be found at lakes and rivers and oceans around the world.