From the modest one-piece swimsuits of the early 20th century to the barely-there bikinis of today, our swimwear has come a long way. It’s always been more than just a protective garment for the beach or pool – it’s a reflection of society, culture, and our attitude toward the human body.
In this blog post, we dive into the history of swimwear and explore what the different types of swimsuits say about us as a society. From traditional one-piece swimsuits to daring topless beachwear, we’ll explore the cultural and societal factors that have shaped our swimwear choices.
One-piece swimwear: modesty and femininity.
In the early years of the 19th century, women often wore long dresses designed specifically for bathing in the sea or hot springs. These dresses were often made of heavy fabric and were meant to cover and protect the body. However, they were not particularly practical for swimming.
During the 19th century, women began to take an interest in more athletic activities, including swimming. Swimwear began to adapt, and the first forms of swimsuits emerged. These early swimsuits were often made of wool so as not to become too heavy in the water. They consisted of long skirts and tops with sleeves that covered the body.
An important figure in the history of swimsuits was Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer who was active in the early 1900s. Kellerman designed a swimsuit that better suited her body for swimming. Her swimsuit had tight-fitting legs, sleeves, and a collar. This swimsuit later became known as the “Annette Kellerman” swimsuit and helped promote the acceptance of more practical swimwear.
In the 1910s, swimsuits gradually began to get shorter, with more exposure of the legs. Silhouettes became a bit looser, but swimwear still remained fairly covering compared to later decades.
In the 1920s, also known as the “Golden Twenties,” fashion underwent a radical change. This was reflected in swimsuits as well. Swimsuits became shorter and less covering. Silhouettes became looser and less restrictive, abandoning the tight-fitting and corset-like designs of the late 19th century and early 1920s. Swimsuits often had plunging necklines, sleeveless designs, and became slightly shorter above the thighs.
In the 1930s, the trend toward less flashy and more elegant designs continued. Swimsuits became slightly longer again and offered more coverage. The silhouette became more fitted, but still less restrictive than in previous decades. One-piece swimsuits with simple lines and cuts became popular, and they were often adorned with ruffles, ribbons or other decorative elements.
Pin-up girls: the discovery of feminine curves in swimwear.
Pin-up girls were stylized depictions of attractive women in the 1950s, often pictured in seductive poses. These images were printed in magazines, periodicals, advertisements, and on posters and were a form of popular art and entertainment. The pin-up girls often had an innocent yet provocative appearance and embodied a kind of ideal beauty image.
1950s swimwear reflected the aesthetics and body image of the time and was influenced by the pin-up girls. The swimsuits and bikinis of this era were often figure-hugging and emphasized the female curves. They had high waists to accentuate the hourglass silhouette, and the tops often featured ruffles, padding, or bows to emphasize cleavage.
1950s swimwear was usually feminine, appealing, and designed with a touch of glamour. This was in line with the style of the pin-up girls, who also embodied a mixture of grace, seduction and aesthetic appeal. Many advertising and fashion photographers used pin-up aesthetics to showcase swimsuits and swimwear. Famous pin-up models such as Marilyn Monroe, Bettie Page, and Esther Williams contributed to this connection between swimwear and pin-up culture by embodying the ideals of the time.
Pin-up culture and 1950s swimwear reflected a desire for joy, femininity, and a touch of innocence during a time of social change and economic boom. This connection between fashion, aesthetics, and pop culture left a lasting impact on perceptions of style, beauty, and femininity in the decades that followed.
Bikinis: liberation and sexualization
The modern bikini was developed in the 1940s, particularly during World War II. Two independent designers who played a role in this development were Louis Réard and Jacques Heim.
Louis Réard, a French engineer, is considered the inventor of the term “bikini”. In 1946, he presented the first skimpy two-piece in Paris. The name “Bikini” supposedly comes from Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, where atomic bomb tests were taking place at the time. Réard chose the name to emphasize the explosive effect and shock his new swimsuit produced.
Jacques Heim, a French designer, had already created a similar but less skimpy two-piece swimsuit called “Atome” in 1942.
Although the bikini was introduced in the 1940s, it didn’t really become popular until the 1950s. A turning point was the publication of pictures of Brigitte Bardot in a bikini, which attracted the attention of the media and the public. In the 1950s, bikinis evolved and became a symbol of freedom, youthfulness and glamour.
In the following decades, bikinis became more and more skimpy and diverse in their designs. Different styles, from string bikinis to high-waist models, became popular. Celebrities such as Ursula Andress in “James Bond 007: Dr. No” (1962) and Raquel Welch in “One Million Years B.C.” (1966) helped to further spread the bikini culture.
Bikinis have become an essential part of swimwear, and there are countless varieties to suit different fashion and taste trends. They are a symbol of beach, sun and leisure and have become a permanent fixture in the fashion world.
Topless: freedom and equality
In the 1960s and 1970s, more and more topless beaches appeared in Europe, where women could resist social norms and taboos regarding female breasts. The topless beach was seen as a symbol of freedom and equality, as women could now enjoy the same freedom as men to be topless without feeling ashamed or judged.
However, topless beaches also sparked controversy and negative reactions. Some saw them as a threat to traditional values and morality, while others saw them as a means to further objectify women’s bodies. Attitudes toward topless bathing still vary widely from country to country and culture to culture. In many Western countries, especially in Europe, topless bathing is accepted and widespread at certain beaches and swimming pools. However, in other countries and more conservative societies, it is often considered inappropriate or even illegal. This may be for cultural, religious or social reasons. Laws and rules can vary by country, region and beach.
The reasons for topless bathing vary from person to person and are often personal and complex. Women who choose to swim topless follow their own beliefs and motivations based on their individual life experiences, culture, and personality.
Nudity: acceptance and rebellion
Nudity has always been a way to rebel against social norms and conventions. Nudist colonies became popular in the 1930s, allowing people to escape the constraints of clothing and societal expectations. Today, some people choose nudism to promote body acceptance and positivity.
However, nudity is also a risk and a taboo. In many countries, public nudity is still illegal, and people who show themselves naked in public are still condemned. Nudity is seen as a form of rebellion and a way to challenge social conventions, but it is also perceived as an act of defiance and deviance.
Why do we even bother with swimwear in this blog? Whether we women choose to wear a swimsuit, a bikini, to go topless or to swim nude, there is always a certain attitude towards ourselves and our bodies in the background. So when we write about bathing women in our texts, this can never happen without asking ourselves what the respective person is wearing or not wearing while bathing. We learn a lot about the protagonists this way. And at the same time we have the possibility for a vivid description.