Swimwear

vintage swimwear

Clothing for swimming, bathing, and seaside wear has been an important and influential area of fashionable dress since the late nineteenth century. The evolution of swimming and bathing costumes has been closely associated with trends in mainstream fashion and advancements in textile technology, but has also reflected broader societal attitudes about personal hygiene, body exposure, and modesty, and whether or not it was appropriate for women to participate in active sports.

Bathing Costumes

Swimming and bathing were common activities in the ancient world, and the Romans built public baths in even the most remote parts of their empire. After declining during the Middle Ages, bathing was revived in the seventeenth century, when it became popular as a medicinal treatment. At spas such as Bath and Baden, where bathers sought out the warm mineral waters for their therapeutic effects, linen bathing garments-knee-length drawers and waistcoats for men, and long-sleeved linen smocks or chemises for women-were in use by the late seventeenth century. These garments were worn for modesty rather than appearance, and could be hired from the baths by those who did not wish to purchase their own.

bathing machine
Woman using a bathing machine, 1893

In the eighteenth century, medical authorities began to prescribe salt-water bathing, and seaside towns, along with large floating baths in most major cities, began to cater to large numbers of health-conscious visitors. Bathing usually consisted of a quick dip, often in the early morning, and was considered more a duty than a pleasure. Until the mid-nineteenth century, male and female bathers were almost always segregated from each other, either through the provision of separate bathhouses or stretches of beach, or by using the same area at different assigned times. Modesty was also preserved by the use of "bathing machines"-small buildings mounted on wheels, in which the bather would change from street clothes into a bathing costume while a horse and driver pulled the machine into the sea. The steps by which the bather would descend into the water were often covered with an awning to ensure that he or she would not be seen until mostly underwater. Thus protected from the eyes of the opposite sex, men generally bathed nude, or in simple trunks with a drawstring waist; women's bathing gowns were cut much like the chemise (undergarment) of the period, but were often made of stiffer material so as not to cling to the figure, and sometimes incorporated weights in the hem to keep the gown from floating. The only purpose of bathing garments at this time was to keep the bather warm and sufficiently covered up, and little thought was given to their appearance.

In the early nineteenth century, bathing began to be considered a recreational as well as beneficial activity, and seaside holidays grew in popularity. Each locality had its own standards for appropriate attire, and the costumes worn varied widely from place to place. In general, however, as women began to be more active in the water, rather than simply immersing themselves, their bathing dresses became slightly shorter, and were gathered or fitted around the waist. At the same time, ankle-length drawers or pantaloons, similar to the drawers worn as underwear by ladies in the 1840s, began to be worn underneath.

From the mid-century on, mixed bathing became more acceptable, and as stationary beach huts began to replace bathing machines, bathing costumes were more visible, and attention began to be paid to making them more attractive. Bathing styles began to be covered by popular magazines, which both standardized bathing costumes and brought them into the realm of fashion, with new styles introduced each season. Women's costumes began to follow the silhouette of street fashions more closely in this period, but also developed their own fashion vocabulary; they were usually made of wool flannel or serge, in dark colors (which were less revealing of the figure when wet), and enlivened by jaunty details such as sailor collars and braid trim in contrasting colors. Bathing costumes also now required many fashionable accessories. Hats, rubberized and oilcloth caps, and a variety of turban-like head-wraps kept hair neat and protected from salt water. Full-length dark stockings kept the legs modestly covered, and flat-soled bathing shoes, often with ribbon ties crossing up the leg, protected the feet and set off the ankles. As wool bathing dresses became quite heavy when wet, and clung to the figure in a way that was considered unattractive and immodest, bathing capes and mantles were also considered necessary for the walk from the water to the changing room.

Bathing Beauties

Bathing Beauties
Mack Sennet's Bathing Beauties c. 1914

Beautiful aquatic women have been important fantasy figures since ancient times, when sirens, mermaids, and water nymphs led heroes of mythology astray. The modern-day bathing beauty, however, did not appear until the late nineteenth century, when bathing dresses were first seen in public. As these were the most revealing costumes allowed for women at the time, images of pretty bathing girls, both in wholesome advertisements and on naughty postcards, soon proliferated. Around 1914, the comedies of silent film producer Mack Sennett began to feature a bevy of young women in exaggerated and revealing bathing dress, whom he called his Bathing Beauties. Their popularity inspired beach resorts such as Venice Beach, California, and Galveston, Texas, to stage annual bathing girl parades and beauty contests; the Miss America pageant started as one such bathing girl contest, held in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1920 to encourage late-season tourism. Over the years this and other beauty pageants, with their parades of women in bathing suits and high heels featured in newsreels and television broadcasts, have been instrumental in associating swimwear with feminine beauty in the popular imagination. (This connection was not lost on Catalina Swimwear, a major pageant sponsor, which started the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants after the 1951 Miss America refused to pose in a swimsuit during her reign.)

The Hollywood bathing beauty came of age in the 1930s, when photographs of stars and starlets posing in fashionable swimwear began appearing in large numbers. These images had an impact on fashions, as women sought to emulate the look of their favorite stars, and achieved iconic status during World War II, when pinups of Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth came to symbolize "what we're fighting for" to many American servicemen. Another, more active kind of bathing beauty was showcased in the aquatic ballets of Billy Rose's Aquacades at the 1939-1940 World's Fair, in the water-skiing spectaculars at Cypress Gardens in Florida, and, most memorably, in the lavish MGM films featuring Esther Williams, the first of which was the 1944 Bathing Beauty. Miss Williams, a 1939 national swimming champion, was a top box-office draw through the mid-1950s, and her film costumes, together with her ability to look glamorous before, during, and after swimming, did much to inspire the desired poolside look of the era.

Since its debut in 1964, Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue has probably been the most relevant modern incarnation of the bathing beauty tradition, and has come to symbolize its contradictions. Widely credited with popularizing the active, healthy California look in the 1960s, and thus encouraging women to be more athletic, the swimsuit issue has also been criticized for displaying women as sex objects for the enjoyment of a predominantly male audience. Seen as empowering, exploitative, or both, the bathing beauties seen in Sports Illustrated continue to influence swimwear fashion, and to act as a kind of barometer for changing cultural attitudes and standards of beauty.

Later in the century, bathing dresses (the term "bathing suit" also came into use at this time) became more practical, with both skirt and pantaloons gradually shortened, necklines lowered, and sleeves shortened or even eliminated. In the United States, where it took longer for these styles to catch on, the one-piece (or "princess-style") costume became a popular alternative in the 1890s; this consisted of an attached blouse and knee-length drawers, with a separate knee-length or shorter skirt that could be removed for swimming. Even so, most bathing costumes were essentially variations of street fashions, intended largely for promenading by the sea and wading or frolicking in the surf; many required the wearing of a corset underneath, and were made of materials that would be ruined if they ever got wet. In the early twentieth century, the term "bathing dress" came to mean this kind of fashionable, skirted costume, as opposed to the utilitarian "swimming suit." Chemise-style silk bathing dresses with bloomers or tights continued to be worn by some women into the 1920s, but by the 1930s they were obsolete, and the terms "bathing suit" and "swimsuit" had become interchangeable.

Swimming Suits

Annette Kellerman (1887-1975), Australian professional swimmer, in her famous custom swimsuit.
Annette Kellerman (1887-1975), Australian professional swimmer, in her custom swimsuit.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, swimming was an activity almost entirely limited to men. While men and women were segregated at baths and beaches, men were free to practice swimming unencumbered by clothes. As mixed bathing became more popular, however, they were forced to find a suitable costume, and by the 1850s men generally wore one-piece knit suits very similar to contemporary one-piece underwear (called union suits), but usually with short sleeves and legs cut off at the knees. Later in the century, there was also a two-piece version available, consisting of a short-sleeved or sleeveless tunic over knee-length drawers. To avoid any hint of impropriety caused by appearing in garments so similar to underwear, men's bathing suits were usually dark in color, sometimes with contrasting bands at the edges; striped suits were also popular, especially in France. This practical knit costume remained basically unchanged until the 1930s.

Women who wished to swim, however, found it much more difficult to find a suitable costume. Beginning in the 1860s, women were encouraged to take up swimming for exercise, and by the 1870s many women were learning to swim at pools and bathhouses, which had separate times designated for male and female bathers. In these sex-segregated situations, and for swimming competitions and demonstrations, female swimmers adopted simple "princess-style" one-piece suits, knitted garments similar to men's suits, or suits with long tights similar to those worn by circus performers. However, these garments were still not acceptable in mixed company, or for public wear out of the water, until the early twentieth century. The Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman became famous early in the century for her long-distance swimming feats and exhibitions of fancy diving, for which she wore sleeveless, form-fitting one-piece suits of black wool knit, sometimes with full-length stockings attached. She was an outspoken advocate for practical swimwear for women, and when she was arrested for indecent exposure for wearing a one-piece suit to a public beach in Boston in 1907, the resulting trial and publicity helped to change public attitudes on the subject. In 1912, the Olympic Games in Stockholm were the first to include women's swimming events, and by the beginning of World War I, one-piece knit suits had gained wide acceptance. In many places, however, local authorities passed strict bathing suit regulations, and the battle over the alleged indecency of abbreviated suits, particularly when worn without stockings, continued in many places into the 1920s.

The Modern Swimsuit

Actress Jane Wyman, 1935
Actress Jane Wyman, 1935

After World War I, several factors combined to produce a radical change in swimwear. Women had achieved new levels of independence during the war, and fashions began to allow them more freedom of movement. Interest in active sports of all kinds increased during the 1920s, and sportswear achieved new importance in fashion. Swimming also gained in popularity due to an increase in the number of municipal swimming pools, and the publicity given to such celebrities as Gertrude Ederle, who in 1926 became the first woman to swim the English Channel. Form-fitting knitted wool tank suits, almost identical to those worn by men, were promoted as active swimwear for the modern woman, and soon became the dominant style. At the same time, beach resorts on the Riviera or at Palm Beach became an important part of the fashionable calendar, and beach fashions assumed new significance in society wardrobes. Paris couturiers such as Jean Jean Patoune Lanvin, and Elsa Schiaparelli used crisply detailed knit suits-both two-piece suits of tunic and trunks and one-piece suits (known as maillots)-as a canvas for geometric designs in bold, contrasting colors. Spending long leisurely days at the beach also required an extensive on-shore wardrobe, including sunsuits and sunbathing dresses, beach coats and capes, bathing shoes and sandals, close-fitting hats for swimming and wide-brimmed hats for shade, colorful beach umbrellas, beach pajamas (very popular in the late 1920s) and, to hold it all, large canvas beach bags.

By the early 1930s, the growing popularity of sunbathing inspired suits with very low-cut "evening-gown" backs, suits with removable straps for sunning, and suits with large cutouts at the sides and back. The one-piece maillot, with or without a vestigial skirt or skirt front (called a "modesty panel"), was still the most common style, but two-piece suits, consisting of a high-waisted skirt or trunks and a brassiere or halter top, were introduced early in the decade. These sometimes coordinated with matching separates to convert into sundresses or playsuits, which succeeded beach pajamas as the most fashionable form of on-shore beachwear. So-called dressmaker suits were another popular style; these were skirted suits with attached trunks, cut like dresses and usually made of printed or textured woven fabrics (sometimes with an elastic liner).

The Swimwear Industry

Jean Duket, Miss Tampa,1947
Miss America: Miss Tampa,1947

In the years following World War I, American manufacturers of ready-made swimwear, most of them based on the West Coast, played a major role in setting fashion trends, and in creating a mass market for fashionable swimwear. The first Jantzen swimming suits, introduced in the late 1910s, were knit in a double-sided rib stitch, which added elasticity and made knitted suits much more practical. The company's innovative advertising campaigns in the 1920s, often featuring Olympic champion swimmers such as Johnny Weissmuller, helped to popularize swimming as well as Jantzen bathing suits, and by 1930 Jantzen was the largest swimwear manufacturer in the world. Catalina and Cole of California, which became major competitors to Jantzen in the late 1920s, emphasized appearance and styling in their suits and advertisements; Catalina became associated with the Miss America pageant, and Cole with Hollywood glamour. Competition between these manufacturers, joined by B.V.D. in 1929, drove changes in swimwear styles and technology through much of the twentieth century.

When feminine curves returned to fashion around 1930, manufacturers began to find ways of shaping the body within the suit, using darts, seaming, and strategically placed elastic to uplift and emphasize the bust. The most important innovation, however, was Lastex, an elastic yarn consisting of an extruded rubber core covered in cotton, rayon, silk, acetate, or wool, which was introduced in 1931 and soon revolutionized the industry. It could be used in both knitted and woven fabrics, gave improved fit and figure control, and allowed designers to add supporting layers, such as brassieres and tummy-control panels, without adding bulk to the silhouette. Lastex-based fabrics, some also incorporating new synthetic yarns, were soon available in a variety of textures and surface treatments, including stretch satins, velvets, shirred cottons, and novelty knits. All-rubber suits, made of embossed rubber sheeting, were introduced in 1932, and were an inexpensive option throughout the decade, though they were easily torn, and sometimes peeled away from the body in pounding surf. Rubber found more practical application in bathing caps, which now fit close to the head to keep the hair dry, and in bathing shoes, many of which were molded rubber facsimiles of street footwear.

The 1930s were also when swimwear manufacturers first turned to Hollywood for style ideas and promotional tie-ins. Jantzen, Catalina, and B.V.D. began to use Hollywood stars in their advertising campaigns, and formed alliances with movie studios and studio designers, lending mass-produced suits an air of Hollywood glamour. Bathing suits worn by stars in films and publicity photos became a major source of swimwear fashion. For example, the strapless sarong-like costumes worn by Dorothy Lamour, first seen in the 1936 film Jungle Princess, immediately inspired manufacturers to include sarong suits in their lines, and helped set a fashion for tropical prints in swimwear.

New Styles for Men

Couple on the beach, c. 1930
Couple on New Jersey Beach, c. 1930

While the detailing of men's suits had been somewhat updated by the late 1920s, and their construction and performance had been improved, decency regulations in many places still required men to wear suits thst covered the chest up to the level of the armpits. As sunbathing became more popular, manufacturers tried to work around these regulations, producing suits with side and back cutouts to permit more sun exposure. Pressure to reduce the amount of fabric in suits also came from competitive swimmers, who quickly adopted the silk knit racer-back suits (with low-cut sides and a single back strap to reduce drag) introduced by the Australian company Speedo in 1928. By the early 1930s, public opinion on the decency of the male chest had begun to shift, and American manufacturers developed convertible suits, with tops that could be zipped off where shirtless bathing was allowed. Swimming trunks, although sold with matching shirts in more conservative markets, began selling well in 1934, and by 1937 had almost completely supplanted the one-piece tank suit. The more abbreviated and close-fitting styles of Lastex with built-in athletic supporters were given outerwear details, such as belts, pockets, and fly fronts, to distinguish them from underwear. Around 1940, the looser boxer-short style, usually boldly patterned, became another popular alternative, with matching short-sleeved sports shirts worn as cover-ups.

Postwar Styles

By the early 1940s, women could choose from a wide variety of styles and fabrics, and were encouraged to have a wardrobe of suits appropriate for different activities and occasions. The bust was increasingly emphasized in both one- and two-piece suits, through strategically placed cutouts, ruffles, and bra sections ruched or tied at the center to form a sweetheart neckline. Dressmaker suits made of woven fabrics were popular, in part because Lastex was in short supply during World War II; these included a new category of dressier suits, meant largely for lounging by the pool, with details borrowed from evening wear and an emphasis on firm figure control. Figure control became even more important after the war, as swimwear adopted the dramatic corseted silhouette made fashionable by Christian Dior's 1947 "New Look" collection. Lastex was once more available, and new synthetic fibers such as nylon were quickly adopted for use in swimwear. Suits began to be constructed like foundation garments, with boning, under-wires, interfacing, and padding producing the desired high, pointed breasts, tiny waist, and jiggle-free figure.

Rose Marie Reid swimsuit from 1956
Rose Marie Reid swimsuit from 1956

Though the first bikini was introduced in 1946, the reaction in America was to move toward more covered up suits, exemplified by the ladylike designs of Rose Marie Reid. In the 1950s, amid growing prosperity and increasing amounts of leisure time, and as more Americans had access to resort vacations and backyard pools, swimwear became more than ever a vehicle for display and fantasy. Swimwear manufacturers found design inspiration in exotic locales such as Mexico and Polynesia, and tropical print and batik ensembles, worn with printed cotton cover-ups and rustic accessories of straw, wood, and raffia, were popular throughout the decade. Exotic animals, especially felines, were another popular theme, as exemplified by the seductive leopard-spotted suits of Cole of California's "Female Animal" collection. Some glamorous poolside ensembles were made of waterproof taffeta and lamé, cut like strapless evening gowns, and decorated with beading and sequins to evoke ancient Egypt or the Arabian Nights. A wide variety of sunsuits, terry-cloth robes, footwear, bathing caps, and sunglasses, along with waterproof makeup, allowed women to maintain a polished appearance, both in and out of the water.

While most 1950s suits were designed to mold the figure to an artificial ideal, a few American designers, including Claire McCardell, Carolyn Schnurer, and Tina Leser, took a different approach. Beginning in the 1940s, they designed unpretentious swimwear and playsuits, usually of wool jersey or printed cotton, which emphasized practicality and freedom of movement over static display. McCardell's ingeniously draped and wrapped jersey suits were praised by the fashion media, but her body-conscious approach had little impact on mainstream styles until the mid-1950s, when swimwear in a similar spirit by designer Rudi Gernreich began to receive attention. Gernreich's sleek wool knit suits, inspired by dancewear, offered a stylish alternative to structured suits, and embodied the casual spirit of California, the source of many lifestyle trends in the late 1950s.

The 1960s to the Present

Gottex bathing suits modeled at the Sheraton Hotel in Tel Aviv
Gottex bathing suit models in Tel Aviv, 1961

By the early 1960s, changing attitudes toward body exposure, together with the growing influence of the youth market, brought a new mood to swimwear. The new ideal of a youthful, tanned, and healthy look, with girls in bikinis and boys in cut-off blue jeans or baggy trunks (known as "jams"), was disseminated by beach party movies and the surf music craze. As the decade progressed, swimwear became briefer and more daring, with tiny bikinis, cutouts, mesh and transparent panels, and Rudi Gernreich's famous topless suit. Designs were drawn from an eclectic variety of sources, including pop art, scuba-diving gear, science fiction, and tribal costumes from around the world. The most important swimwear development, however, was the availability of spandex, a lightweight synthetic polyurethane fiber much stronger and more elastic than rubber, which was introduced for use in foundation garments in 1958. Spandex expanded the range of novelty fabrics available to designers, and that meant suits could now be made to fit like a second skin without heavy linings and supporting layers.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a fit, sculpted, and toned body became the new ideal. Rather than shaping the body, fashionable swimwear and beachwear was now designed to frame and reveal it, and difficult-to-tone areas such as the buttocks and upper thighs became the new erogenous zones. Athletic styles, such as racer-back tank suits and the Speedo briefs worn by Mark Spitz at the 1972 Olympics, were a major influence. One-piece suits returned to fashion, though many of them were essentially complex networks of crossed and wrapped straps joining small areas of fabric, and offered little more coverage than contemporary thongs and string bikinis. Stretch fabrics could be made lighter than ever, and bright, solid colors and metallic finishes were used for sleek maillots with thin spaghetti straps, which with the addition of a wrap skirt could double as disco wear.

Since the 1980s, despite warnings about the dangers of ultraviolet radiation, swimwear and beachwear have remained an important part of most wardrobes. Swimwear has been in what might be called its postmodern phase, with a wide variety of styles and influences operating simultaneously. Retro styles first appeared in the early 1980s, when designers such as Norma Kamali revived the glamorous shirred and skirted styles of the 1940s, and designs recalling every decade of the twentieth century have since appeared. Other recurring themes have been underwear-as-outerwear styles, with visible boning and underwires; minimalism; and streamlined athletic styles, emphasizing high-tech fabrics and finishes. Men have also been able to choose from a range of retro looks and amounts of coverage, from skimpy bikini briefs to baggy knee-length surfer styles; extremely baggy shorts with low-rise waists are a popular look in the early 2000s. Two late-1990s innovations were the tankini, a two-piece suit with the coverage and figure control of a one-piece, and the concept of mix-and-match swim separates, with a variety of bra styles, trunks, and skirted bottoms recalling the versatile playsuits of the 1930s and 1940s, and offering consumers unprecedented freedom of choice.

See also Bikini; Rudi Gernreich; Norma Kamali; Claire Mccardell; Jean Patou.

Bibliography

Cunningham, Patricia. "Swimwear in the Thirties: The B.V.D. Company in a Decade of Innovation." Dress 12 (1986): 11-27.

Johns, Maxine James, and Jane Farrell-Beck. "Cut Out the Sleeves: Nineteenth-Century U.S. Women Swimmers and Their Attire." Dress 28 (2001): 53-63.

Kidwell, Claudia. Women's Bathing and Swimming Costume in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1968.

Lansdell, Avril. Seaside Fashions 1860-1939. Princes Risborough, U.K.: Shire Publications, 1990.

Lenček, Lena, and Gideon Bosker. Making Waves: Swimsuits and the Undressing of America. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1989.

Martin, Richard, and Harold Koda. Splash!: A History of Swimwear. New York: Rizzoli International, 1990.

Probert, Christina. Swimwear in Vogue. New York: Abbeville Press, 1981.

Internet Resource

Miss America Organization. "Miss America History." Available from http://missamerica.org/our-history/

Swimwear