Bathing Beauties

This issue, fashion historian, Scott William Schiavone, takes us through the development of swimming attire through the years, just in time for the summer holidays

The history of the bathing suit is a fascinating journey through changing societal norms, technological advancements and evolving fashion trends. It spans centuries, reflecting broader cultural shifts and advancements in textile technology.

At the dawn of the 20th century, swimwear was very conservative. Women’s swimsuits were typically made of heavy fabrics like wool, designed more to cover the body and preserve the wearer’s modesty than ease of moving in the water. These cumbersome garments were normally knee-length dresses, bloomers and stockings. Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer and actress, popularised the one-piece swimsuit for women, which was considered scandalous at the time. Her arrest for wearing a form-fitting, one-piece suit in 1907 in Boston marked a pivotal moment in swimwear history.

The 1910s and 1920s marked the beginning of significant changes. As leisure time increased and beach culture gained popularity, swimsuits began to evolve into more practical and comfortable garments. During this period, materials like jersey and rayon replaced heavier fabrics, allowing for greater movement and comfort. The two-piece swimsuit for women, which, while still conservative by today’s standards, began to expose the midriff, was introduced in the 1930s. The development of Lastex, a fabric that combined rubber with textile fibres, revolutionised swimwear by providing a more form-fitting and elastic material. This era also marked the rise of swimwear as a fashion statement, influenced by Hollywood stars like Esther Williams, who played Annette Kellerman in the film Million Dollar Mermaid (1952).

World War II had a significant impact on fashion, including swimwear. Due to fabric rationing, swimsuits became smaller and more economical in design. The bikini, introduced by French designer Louis Réard in 1946, revolutionised swimwear. Initially controversial, it gradually gained acceptance and became a symbol of liberation and modernity. The 1950s and 1960s saw the bikini become more mainstream, coinciding with the sexual revolution and Youthquake of the 1960s and changing attitudes toward body image and modesty. Advances in textile technology introduced new materials such as nylon and spandex, enhancing fit, comfort and durability. The influence of icons like Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe helped popularise the bikini and other bold swimwear styles.

In the 1970s and 1980s swimwear became more specialised, catering for different activities such as competitive swimming and casual beachwear. Brands like Speedo and Jantzen led the way in functional swimwear for athletes. Swimwear styles for the beach however, reflected the broader fashionable trends of the times, including bold colours and patterns.

In recent decades, swimwear has continued to evolve, with innovations in materials such as Lycra and spandex enhancing fit and comfort. Designers have embraced diverse styles, from the modest burkini to high-fashion swimwear. Today, bathing suits reflect a wide range of personal expressions, body types and cultural preferences, symbolising both fashion and freedom.

The journey of the bathing suit from heavy, modest garments to today’s diverse array of styles, mirrors broader societal changes and technological advancements, highlighting the interplay between fashion, culture and functionality.

Scott William Schiavone is a fashion historian and Curator of Decorative Art at The Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston. Scott, who has worked with fashion and textile collections in museums across the UK, has his own YouTube channel, Fashion &… and is an accredited lecturer for The Arts Society.



Tedd Walmsley

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