Ellie Dyson researches the evolution of women’s beachwear.
With the holiday season upon us, shoppers everywhere are browsing the aisles looking for the best deals on mix-and-match bikinis. But that two-piece in your basket has gone through a two-hundred-year evolution to be where it is today, from a time when women could even be arrested if their outfit didn’t follow protocol. A day at the beach a hundred years ago hardly sounds relaxing.
In the early 1800s, women went into the water fully-clothed in bathing dresses and bonnets to protect their skin against the sun. Weights were sewn into the hems of the dresses to keep them from floating up in the water. This early beachwear would have upheld the Victorian value that a woman’s modesty was her greatest asset. The Victorians took this one step further with a contraption called a ‘bathing machine’. A horse would drag a little hut on wheels into the waves, where a woman could change into her bathing dress and step right into the ocean, hidden from view, allowing maximum privacy.
In the late 1800s, full coverage was still needed. Women were not supposed to show much skin, and they also didn’t want much sun exposure. The suits at the time resembled dresses and were made from flannel. Bathing slippers allowed protection from broken glass and pebbles.
The 1900s called for a new style that was still modest but allowed women to swim, something which previously wasn’t possible. This came in the form of the seaside walking dress. It had less fabric than the previous century, but still covered the body of the wearer. Annette Kellerman, a famous swimmer at the time, was arrested for indecency when wearing her one-piece bathing suit, as it showed her neck, arms and legs. She later altered the design to have long sleeves, legs and a collar, and marketed her own line of swim wear.
The 1910s saw a sailor-inspired style with added frills and stripes. Bloomers reduced the risk of accidental exposure, as the skirts were shorter than they were in previous eras, and the garments were made of flannel. The flannel still would have created problems when swimming, becoming very heavy after absorbing water. Lace up shoes were worn on the beach. In 1916, new swimwear brand Jantzen introduced figure-hugging swimsuits featuring shorts and cut-outs. The suits were advertised as a ‘swimming suit’ rather than a ‘bathing suit’ to justify them as athleticwear.
By 1920, women had started to show a little more skin, but their shorts had to reach a certain length down their leg otherwise they would be arrested by the ‘Swimsuit Police’ waiting on beaches with tape measures.
The 1930s saw the introduction of stretchy synthetic fabrics, lower necklines and shorter shorts, now cut at upper-thigh length. Many of the suits were backless and made of elastic rubber. In 1946, French model Micheline Bernadini modelled the first bikini for designer Louis Reard. Marketed as a two-piece swimming suit which revealed “everything about a girl except her mother’s maiden name”, it was named after a US atomic test entitled ‘Bikini Atoll’. The smaller garments were also a functional decision, in response to fabric shortages during the war. In 1952 Brigitte Bardot starred in ‘Manina, The Girl in the Bikini’, one of the first times a bikini featured in a movie. As two-pieced costumes gained popularity with the public, they tended to still cover the navel. Swimsuits started to have support like underwiring and ruching to create the sought-after hourglass figure. Being post-war time, there were larger amounts of supplies and more factory resources.
By the 1960s, the introduction of Lycra and nylon enabled swimsuits to be even tighter, but without restricting movement too much. The suits initially followed a similar style to the 1950s, but as the decade wore on they became even less conservative.
During the 1970s, Bikinis got even smaller, and came in vivid colours. The use of Lycra became more common, improving elasticity and reducing drag, and so it became very popular with Olympic swimmers. Coverups, sunglasses and statement accessories took a bikini to the next level.
In the 1980s bold prints became very popular, paired with even bolder beach accessories, and it was the new style for swimsuits to plunge at the front and back. An athletic style became popular during the 1990s, mainly because of popular television show, Baywatch. The invention of Tankinis (half bikini, half tank top) was a major innovation in the late 90s. The style quickly took more than one third of the swimwear market. The era also saw the arrival of mix and match tops and bottoms. So, there you have it! Today beachwear comes in many styles to cater to different body shapes, with new designs being released every season. Thankfully, these days women can leave their hut on wheels at home when they want a dip in the big blue!