Evolution of the Swimsuit

Ninoshka Alvares-Delaney

If there is one piece of clothing that has evolved more than any other through the decades, it’s the swimsuit. The changes in the styles of swimwear over time differed between cultures and came about with the changes in social, religious and legal attitudes towards swimming and swimwear.

In the classical era, swimming and outdoor bathing was either done in the nude or in one’s underwear. However, in the Middle Ages, swimming and outdoor bathing was discouraged. It would appear that until the 1670s nude female bathing in the spas was the norm and that after that time women bathed clothed. The bathing gown in the 18th and 19th century was a loose ankle-length full-sleeve chemise-type gown made of wool or flannel that would not become transparent when wet, with weights sewn into the hems so that they would not rise up in the water. This was not only cumbersome, but very dangerous.

In the Victorian era, Western cultures deplored nudity of any degree, and people took great pains to cover themselves. In the first half of the 19th century, the woman’s double suit was common, comprising a gown from shoulder to knees plus a set of trousers with leggings going down to the ankles. By the second half of the 19th century, in France, the sleeves started to vanish, the bottom became shorter to reach only the knees and the top became hip-length and both became more form fitting.

In 1907, Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman revolutionised the swimsuit. Her figure hugging one-piece suit sans buttons or a collar, paved the way for the one-piece. She was arrested in Boston for indecent exposure because her swimsuit showed arms, legs and the neck, a costume she adopted from England, and which was similar to men’s swimsuits of the time. Her brave move started changing perceptions when it came to what women should be allowed to wear. By 1910, the one-piece swimming tights became accepted swimsuit attire for women in parts of Europe. Kellerman marketed a line of bathing suits and her style of one-piece suits came to be known as the Annette Kellerman.

It was not long before swimwear started to shrink further. At first arms were exposed and then legs up to mid-thigh. Necklines receded from around the neck down to around the top of the bosom. The development of new fabrics allowed for new varieties of more comfortable and practical swimwear. Female swimming was introduced at the 1912 Summer Olympics in which the contenders wore swimsuits similar to Kellerman’s swimsuit. In 1913, the designer Carl Jantzen introduced a collection of figure hugging suits sporting shorter shorts and even cut-outs. The term bathing suit was changed to swimming suit to justify the more revealing suits as athletic.

In the 1920s, women dared to wear swimsuits that were tighter around the bust and waist. The sleeves came off and the skirt lengths shrunk. Nevertheless, the shorts or skirt still has to meet a certain length, or else they would be fined or arrested for wearing one-piece bathing suits without the required leg coverage. Rayon was used in the manufacture of tight fitting swimsuits, but its durability, especially when wet, proved problematic, with jersey and silk also sometimes being used.

By the 1930s, the development of new clothing materials, particularly latex and nylon, brought in more form fitting styles, with higher cut legs and lower cut necklines. Suntans became fashionable and shoulder straps could be lowered for tanning. Romper suits were all the rage and showing off bare legs and shoulders became standard attire for the beach. Spaghetti straps were increasingly popular making bathing suits far more practical.

The 1940s saw a dramatic change in swimsuits with the introduction of bikinis. Luxury swimwear designers were starting to get bolder when it came to deeming what was acceptable attire for women in public. Swimsuits, however, were often still high waisted with a bralette top.

By the 1950s, iconic women like Marilyn Monroe sporting this new style of swimwear made it perfectly normal for a woman to wear a two-piece on the beach. In 1952, Brigitte Bardot starred in Manina, the girl in the Bikini, making it the first appearance of the bikini in a movie. Although, at the time it was still considered inappropriate to show the navel and received several protests.

The 1960s is still regarded as one of the most vital turning points in fashion. In this hippie movement, women were encouraged to wear whatever they wanted to without feeling ashamed or embarrassed. Designer Rudi Gernreich conceived and produced the revolutionary and controversial monokini in 1964. The introduction of nylon and Lycra made suits tighter than ever. In India, Bollywood actress Sharmila Tagore appeared in a bikini in the movie ‘An evening in Paris’ (1967), making her the first Indian actress to appear in a bikini onscreen.

By the 1970s, more Indian actresses, such as Parveen Babi, Zeenat Aman and Dimple Kapadia, made bikini-clad appearances in movies. Minds expanded and bikinis shrank, and not surprisingly, women were showing more midriff than ever before.

The high bikini lines of the 1980s flashed more flesh than ever before. During this period women’s independence was only growing and swimsuits and bikinis became even more risqué and fashion forward. Swimsuits plunged deeper in front and revealed more in the back. Colourful prints and neon swimsuits were in trend.

Swimwear navigated towards athletic designs in the 1990s. The tankini was introduced in the market by designer Anne Cole. The two-piece tankini blended the freedom of a bikini with the more modest coverage of a one-piece bathing suit; a nod back to previous swimsuit styles. The concept of mixing and matching tops, bottoms, and prints became popular.

Nowadays, swimwear and beachwear are completely varied in terms of style. There are no rules or regulations when it comes to swimwear anymore and a woman can choose to wear whatever she feels most comfortable in. From daring to conservative, take your pick this summer.

Until next time, stay stylish!

(Writer is a fashion designer. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @ninoshkaindia)