As the weather heats up and we head to the sandy beaches, let’s take a look into the brief history of swimwear over the last century.
by Zipporah Gene.
Fashion is ever changing. Our trends, styles, tastes, and needs, speak volumes of the expanding complexities of modern societies. The choice of fabric, cut, color, and even simple things such as hemlines are inarguably the simultaneous embodiment and reflection of our collective mindset. I would go as far to argue that the often-overlooked realm of swim and beachwear, is the best place to view our evolving ideals and etiquette at play.
Sauntering across on the hot sands of Koh Samui’s Lamai Beach, it’s impossible to imagine a time when men and women wore anything other than the ubiquitous swimsuit. Yet, over the last hundred years, both male and female attire have both undergone unprecedented change. Our fabrics have not only become thinner and lighter but also shorter and racier. Some would argue that they’ve become skimpier.
I remember visiting an exhibition titled “Riviera Style – Resort and Swimwear Since 1900” at the London Fashion and Textile Museum back in 2015. Whether you agree or not, we live in an age where wanton nudity is the new normal, so looking at all the different swimsuits of old, I found it hard to reconcile what seemed like never-ending, unnecessary swaths of clothing. It was truly surreal to see some of the frocks and smocks, people of old classified as beach attire.
Early 20th Century
In the Christian West, swimming, beach attendance and all that associated with it, hasn’t always enjoyed the favored position that it does today. In fact, not only was it frowned upon, but also discouraged, so the demand for adequate beach attire was not seen till the turn of the 18th century.
By the late 19th Century, beachgoers began to wear what they referred to as “bathing dresses.” These were layered garments, made of wool or flannel that as a rule would fall just above the knee. They were heavy, uncomfortable and provided very little by way of mobility. A remnant of Victorian puritanical sensibility, these outfits matched the clothing of the time, in the sense that they too would also be paired with matching under garments such as stockings and corsets. Owing to the limited materials on offer, when wet, these costumes were prone to becoming stiff and extremely itchy. So of course it doesn’t come as a surprise to discover that women did very little swimming in them.
Men on the other hand, wore outfits similar to our modern day one pieces, but with the added extra over-the-suit pant, known as “athletes.” Reminiscent of Superman’s signature costume pants they paired with belts, which were intended to hold the shape of the costume and cover their modesty. Even for men, at the time, showing shoulders or exposing the sleeves was considered “racy” and was unacceptable in the mixed beaches.
Mid 20th Century
Advances in the development of new and revolutionary materials such as nylon meant that designers were able to create more flattering, figure hugging shapes and designs. By the 1940s both form fitting and, still modest, two-piece swimsuits, were already part of the retinue.
However, the wartime rationing effort pushed the boundaries further. In the early half of the 1940s, due to the requirements for vast amounts of silk, cotton, wool, rubber, and nylon, many Western governments mandated a cut in the use of natural fibers in clothing.
In a bid to resurrect the waning swimsuit industry French designers Jacques Heim and Louis Réad both concurrently created the bikini that we recognize today.
Although they had been introduced quite earlier on in the century, it would take a while before racerback swimsuits, bikinis, and even tankinis would be globally accepted as the norm. Hollywood’s influence has understandably played a great part in its eventual global success and acceptance. Even now, there are still many countries, especially among the Arab nations that are heavily opposed or simply ban forms such as the bikini.
Very few would argue with the fact that like undergarments, swimsuits symbolize more than a change in trend, styles, and fashion. Open to public scrutiny, and yet extremely intimate, they are clear markers of our changing ideals on both body consciousness and sexual attitudes. From their heavy and bulky beginnings, they have not only shrunk in size, but cross-bred with both sportswear and underwear, to give us the designs and shapes we have come to take for granted.
I can only imagine what the future holds, and if in a hundred years or so, others will look back at what we wore and wonder in the same fashion how we pulled it off.