Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Fun Facts: History of Swimwear

Aah, the swimsuit.  The brightly-colored, body-hugging, high-tech miracle we know today is vastly different from its ancestors; in fact, it bears absolutely no resemblance.  Influenced by technology, fashion, and standards of morality, swimsuits have evolved drastically over the last 200 years.  Let’s take a little walk through swimwear’s history.

Swimwear in Victorian Times

Women's Bathing Suit Circa 1858
Women's Bathing Dress, circa 1858
By Harpers magazine via Wikimedia Commons PD
In the 1800’s, modesty dominated.  The Victorian era was in full swing, with its intense emphasis on moral values.  Body parts could scarcely be discussed, much less displayed.  As with all the fashions of the day, bathing attire had to cover a lot of skin and hide the body from view.  Though men and women were often segregated in bathing or swimming settings, women still went to great lengths to keep their form concealed from other women.  

The Victorian lady would don a long swimming dress, with full-coverage sleeves and a discreet neckline, along with bloomer-style pants underneath.  To keep the skirt from floating upwards, the hemline sometimes included weights.  The garments were made of wool, and were often black or darkly colored.  Topping off the look were dark stockings, bathing shoes, and perhaps a hat.  Let’s pause to consider how the early Victorian woman must have felt during a trip to the beach.  She’s wearing more clothing than most of us ever wear (even in cold weather), it’s long, billowy, weighted, and made of wool.  After frolicking (if even possible) on the beach, she goes for a quick dip in the sea, where her voluminous layers of wool get drenched.  It sounds dreadfully uncomfortable, and extremely  impractical, but at least nobody got a peak at her knee.  As the 19th century progressed, so did women’s swimwear, albeit slowly.  Sleeve lengths got shorter, as did hemlines (ankles were spotted!).  

Victorian Bathing Machine
A bathing machine is depicted in 
"Mermaids at Brighton" by William Heath
via Wikimedia Commons, PD-Art
Another modesty-inspired solution employed at Victorian era beach resorts was the bathing machine.  Not so much a machine as a cabana-on-wheels, the bathing machine acted as a moving dressing room.  The beach-going lady would enter the hut in her regular clothing, then once inside change into her bathing costume.  A horse would pull the little dressing room right into the sea, where the lady could discreetly get into the water while being shielded from prying eyes on the beach.  

Turn of the Century Swimwear Innovations

Annette Kellerman and her swimsuit
Annette Kellerman in her bathing suit
via Wikimedia Commons
Photographer unknown, PD
With the dawn of the 20th century, swimwear continued its slow change; capped sleeves or sleeveless gained some grounds.  The skirts were shorter, and not as full, and the bloomers reached daring mid-calf lengths.  Until this time, men had been accepted as athletic swimmers, but not women.  Around the turn of the century, this changed, and women began to be acknowledged as legitimate in the sport of swimming.  We can assume that nobody was winning races while wearing a full dress and pantaloons, and so the swimsuit began undergoing a major evolution.  

In the first decade of the 1900’s, a professional swimmer named Annette Kellerman created a stir by designing and wearing a one piece bathing suit.  Similar to a unitard, this new style was form-fitting, hitting the legs mid-thigh, and with very short sleeves.  Though she wore it with stockings, it was still considered indecent and she was arrested.  Kellerman successfully defended her bathing suit’s design as necessary to enjoying swimming as exercise, and went on to create a line of swimwear.  

Michele Morgan wears a two piece bathing suit
Michele Morgan c. 1940
via Wikimedia Commons,
Photographer unknown, PD
After this milestone, swimwear continued to shrink and change.  One-piece, thigh-length suits became more accepted, and became more colorful and form-fitting as the years marched on.  In the 1920’s, knit fabrics were first used for swimwear.  Though still made of wool, the stretchiness of the knit fabric was ideal for the new figure-hugging trends.  The next big change came in the 1930’s when designer Mabs of Hollywood introduced a new fabric called lastex to swimwear.  The lastex fabric must have been a welcome change, as it was stretchy, silky, and, well, not wool.  It caught the attention of Hollywood starlets, and swimwear veered into glamour-land.  Contour-hugging suits were now the norm, and swimwear continued getting smaller.  Two piece swimsuits started appearing in the 1940’s, though at this point they didn’t bare much more skin than their one-piece counterparts, as the navel was still covered.    

The Bikini Explosion: the 40's and 50's

Marilyn Monroe wearing a bikini
Marilyn Monroe in a bikini
via Wikimedia Commons
Tichnor Bros,Inc, PD

In 1947, the Bikini’s introduction produced the intended reaction of a bomb being dropped.  Consisting of very little fabric, the new skimpy two-piece bathing suits scandalized the world as beaches attempted to ban their use.  After a few years, however, the bikini started to make appearances, as bold starlets wore them in public places.  In 1960, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”, sung by Bryan Hyland, soared to the top of the charts in the United States, along with the bikini’s popularity.     

1970's Gottex Monokini
Vintage 1970's Gottex Monokini
Photo courtesy of SwimSkins on Etsy
Around this same time, Israeli based luxury swimwear company Gottex came onto the scene.  Company founder Lea Gottlieb had a mission to make beautiful suits that would truly work for women.  What a contrast to the Victorian approach of covering every inch of the body in several layers!  Instead, Gottex has been at the forefront of technology in the swimwear industry, aiming to support and enhance a woman’s body.  It was one of the first companies to incorporate a hard-cup bra into a bathing suit, and the first to use Spandex.  Gottex is as strong as ever today, designing high quality swimsuits in beautiful fabrics, as well as a large collection of coordinating pieces such as caftans, cover-ups, scarves and sun hats.  

Since the 1960’s, swimwear has changed along with fashion, featuring colors, patterns and cuts that reflected the broader trends.  Always popular, the one-piece bathing suit has held its place as swimwear’s go-to style.  Not to be outshone, the two-piece has maintained its place in swimwear with developments such as the thong in the 1980’s, and (on the opposite end of the coverage spectrum) the tankini in the 1990’s.  In recent decades, “shapewear” and swimwear have merged, using high-tech fabrics and clever designs to hide bumps and smooth lumps.  

Women's Rash Guard Swim Shirt by Victory by KoreDry
Women's Swim Shirt by Victory
Another recent trend in swimwear has been spurred by the increase in information about the potential skin damage that can result from spending time in the sun.  Specially treated fabrics provide UPF protection from UVA and UVB rays.  Rash guards and swim shirts provide more coverage, shielding the shoulders, neck and arms as well as the torso from the sun.  Originally, rash guards were developed for surfers, they then gained in popularity,
seeing widespread use by children and adults alike.  Swim shirts were the next development; the rash guard’s looser cousin.  

Woman in Sun Hat and Swimsuit
Swimsuit and Coco Loco sun hat
by Profile by Gottex
From the abundant tiers of fabric that the Victorians swam in, to the mere inches of fabric in a teeny weeny bikini, we’ve reached a time when it seems there’s something to “suit” everyone.  Trendy bikinis abound for the body-con fashionista, and one-piece bathing suits in figure-flattering styles and beautiful fabrics are bountiful.  For the sun conscious, swim shirts and rash guards provide excellent coverage, and those seeking to supplement their look with sun hats, cover-ups and accessories have plentiful options.  

With such dramatic changes in the last two centuries, it’s fun to ponder: what will the future of swimwear will hold?

Sources: Vintage Fashion Guild, Victoriana Magazine, Australia.gov, Fashion Maniac, Los Angeles Times 

1 comment:

  1. Love this! I had no idea. Thank *God* I live in the 21st century where I have a ton of choice about what to wear. :) So well written. Thanks for sharing!