Fun in the Sun: The Evolution of the Bathing Suit

By: Anna-Maria Hand 

Swimsuits are a summer staple, which is why this week we just had to check out the MdHS collection of women's bathing suits. While there were only about 10-15 suits in the collection,  many of them were of different styles, colors, and fabric which ultimately helped us to identify the time period.

The first bathing suit dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. Then, swimsuits were made of wool and had long bloomers attached to a dress, usually with capped sleeves. The bloomers combined with the dress silhouette and the heavy fabric weighted down the wearer. This may seem odd, but actually made sense for the time- in the early days of bathing activities women were limited to wading in shallow waters.

By 1910, the bloomers were minimized, and the swimsuit contoured more closely to the female body. They were still made of heavy wool or flannel, but they were becoming more closely related to sportswear. In 1915, swimming was becoming a popular sport for women. Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman, the first woman to swim across the english channel, was actually arrested for wearing a form-fitting one piece. In fact, while swimming and swimsuits were becoming more common attire for women, they could be arrested for "public indecency" on beaches if the swimsuit wasn't up to public standards.

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In the 1920s, swimsuits were styled with a shorter and tighter wool dress that went over shorts, and the sleeves were replaced with shoulder straps. This allowed the torso to be covered, while showing off the arms and legs. It is interesting to note that the use of wool and flannel for swimsuits didn't completely disappear until WWII, when wool was needed for making uniforms.

There is evidence of two-piece bathing suits in the late 1930s, but Louis Réard was the first to coin the term "bikini" in 1946.  "As the story goes, Réard chose the name because of recent atomic tests at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. His idea was that this new suit would have the same explosive effect as splitting the atom did on its island namesake." (Spivak, E., 2012) The bikini did indeed explode in popularity throughout the second half of the 20th century, and continues to be the most popular style of swimsuit.

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Resources and Read More

History of bathing suits

Emily Spivack, "How Bathing Suits went from Two-pieces, to Long Gowns and Back." June 22, 2012. smithsonianmag.com