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Evolution of the Swimsuit


It's that time of year again! Summer is just around the corner, and soon it will be warm enough to hop into the pool or lounge the day away on the seashore. This week, the BOB team decided to explore the history of the swimsuit, from way back in the Neolithic era to the modern day! People have been swimming for as long as they've existed. Cave paintings dating back 10,000 years depict people with bent limbs who appear to be swimmers. Swimming also appears in the wall art of the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians, in Greek pottery, and in Roman paintings. It’s described in ancient texts like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and even the Bible.

Swim0.jpg Wall paintings in the "Cave of Swimmers" in the Sahara Desert. This part of the world was much greener and wetter in the Neolithic period.

From what we can tell, it seems that most people in the ancient world went swimming in the nude. On the whole, the concept of swimwear is a relatively young one, only emerging in the West around the late 17th century.

Swim2 Wall painting from the Tomb of the Diver in the Greek city of Paestum, 5th century BCE.

In the 1600s, public bathhouses were popular across Europe. Women bathed nude until the 1670s, at which time they switched to wearing stiff canvas garments with large, draping sleeves meant to disguise a woman’s shape. These bathing robes were colored yellow so the dingy bathwater wouldn’t stain them. Yikes. People flocked to the seaside in the 1700s, and for beachwear, women donned long-sleeved, ankle-length bathing gowns made of wool or flannel. They were intended to preserve the wearer’s modesty and to keep ladies tan-free, since pale skin was considered fashionable at the time. Weights sewn into the hems kept the garments from floating up and revealing too much skin (but probably made it really difficult to swim).

Swim7Ladies' swimwear from the 1797 Gallery of Fashion.

By the 1850s, the bathing gown had transformed into a two-piece pantsuit with a knee-length top and separate bottom that reached the ankle. They were still made of wool, but at least offered some extra mobility. Still doesn’t sound very comfortable, though. Next came the Victorian Era and the invention of the bathing machine. What on earth is a bathing machine? Well, it’s basically a dressing room on wheels. Horses pulled these bizarre contraptions to the water’s edge so ladies could enter the water without showing off their figures. Not that there was much to show off—the most scandalous suits of the period consisted of knee-length Turkish bloomers and short-sleeved tops that covered the midriff.

Swim3.jpg An example of a bathing machine in William Heath's "Mermaids at Brighton" c. 1829.

In the 20th century, things began to change. At the turn of the century, sailor-inspired styles were all the rage. Women took to the beach in skirts, frilly collars, stockings, and even lace-up shoes. In 1907, Annette Kellerman was arrested at Boston’s Revere Beach because she arrived in a one-piece bathing suit that showed her arms and legs. The scandal sparked a discussion and led to the first annual “bathing suit day,” held at Madison Square Garden in May of 1916. Beauty contests where participants showed off swimsuit physique became popular soon afterward. The 1920s, an era of sexual liberation, saw a rise in the popularity of body-hugging swim styles. Most swimsuits were cut at the upper thigh during this period, and some even featured cut-out sides. Jantzen Knitting Mills launched the first one-piece “elastic” suit in 1921, and the suit gained popularity after it appeared at the Bathing Beauty Pageant in Atlantic City. swim20s A 1920s swimsuit.

Mabs of Hollywood revolutionized swimsuits in the mid 1930s by making swimwear from Lastex, a woven material made of satin, elastic, and silk. Hollywood starlets like Joan Crawford, Loretta Young, and Jean Harlow popularized this style. This was the first decade to see bra construction used in swimsuits, and also the decade the adjustable shoulder strap was introduced. In the 1942, wartime production altered the way swimsuits were manufactured. World War II required cotton, silk, nylon, and other fabrics, so the United States War Production Board issued Regulation L-85, which called for a 10% reduction in fabric content of women’s swimwear. Manufacturers complied by removing the midriff of their swimsuits, and the American two-piece was born. Did the reduction help the war effort? Maybe. It certainly helped soldier morale.

Swim6.jpg Swimsuit competition. Paris, 1949.

Then, in 1946, the game changed. That’s the year French designer Louis Reard introduced his new invention, a scanty, two-piece swimsuit that covered only the essentials. He hired Micheline Bernardini, an exotic dancer, to model the design because his regular models refused to wear it. Reard named his design the “Bikini,” after Bikini Atoll, the island in the South Pacific where the US had been testing atomic bombs. The bikini debuted at a fashion event in Paris, and was promptly banned for indecency by both Italy and Spain.

Swim4 Brigitte Bardot earned the nickname "Bikini Girl" because of her role in 1952's The Girl in the Bikini.

Bikinis hit the mainstream in the 1950s, when French actress Brigitte Bardot wore a floral one to the 1953 Cannes Film Festival. By the 1960s, they were all the rage in California, and in 1964, model Babette March was rocking one on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The 1970s were a fashion explosion. High waisted bottoms, minimum top coverage, and creative designs flooded the swim scene. Farrah Fawcett turned heads in a racy low-cut one piece and revived the look. Meanwhile, production of elastane swimsuits increased. At the 1972 Olympic games, swimmers in nylon/elastane suits broke 21 different swim records.

Farrah Fawcett in her cherry-red Norma Kamali one-piece circa 1976.

The 1980s were all about bright colors and high cuts, both of which carried over to the 90s. By 1990, New York City fashion designer Norma Kamali was incorporating underwire bras into both one and two-piece swimsuits, a real blessing for bustier ladies everywhere. Then, in 1998, American designer Anne Cole created the tankini—a two-piece suit that offered the coverage of a one-piece with the freedom of a bikini. Big name designers caught on and the tankini skyrocketed in popularity.

The cast of TV beach drama Baywatch models the high-cut swimsuits typical of the era, circa 1989.

Nowadays, swimwear comes in all shapes and sizes, from the full-coverage to the not-so-full. Bra-size swimsuits make it easy for women of all sizes to enjoy the beach or pool in comfort and style, and they’re available in one or two-piece options. Subscribe to our blog for more articles like this one, and be sure to visit us online at to shop this season’s swim styles!



  • Tankinis were one of the best changes in swimwear! Well, maybe after ditching the ankle length skirts and wool.

  • It’s quite amazing the evolution of the swimsuit. Never heard of the bathing machines before reading this! We saw swimsuits go from a more modest look to a barely covered look and now all swimsuits have a place in being fashionable.


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