HOW SWIMWEAR STARTED - THE HISTORY OF SWIMWEAR
Updated: Feb 7
Swimwear is one of the few garments that serve as a benchmark for human history. The evolution of the swimsuit will baffle you with the most significant trends in swimsuit fashion inspired greatly by the past. The garments used for swimming and bathing reflect attitudes towards sports, modesty, and leisure. In this light, the history of bathing suits can be interpreted as a history of women’s liberation and control over their bodies.
The history of swimwear goes back to the early centuries when there were no bathing suits; people swam nude. Yes, the infamous birthday suit. Ancient history, however, shows old proof of bathing suits being worn in public. Swimming for pleasure in the early days was not common, but bathing was a widespread practice. So important was the practice that each emperor constructed luxurious bathhouses called thermae as part of the reign. It was an important social activity, yet most people did not put much thought into what they wore while doing it.
The end of the 15th century saw more people cover up while swimming publicly but not with any special bathing suits. The invention of swimsuits first came to light in the mid-1800s, not for anything other than out of necessity. Perhaps this could be explained by the recent improvement in railroad and other transportation methods that finally made swimming and going to the beach a recreational activity. But what will shock you is what these bathing suits look like.
The real early swimwear was made of cotton and wool that would expectedly get wet and quite heavy when wet. Only the basic colours, including red, black, and blue, were used where colour was concerned. The design of these bathing suits was such that they covered the whole body, not just out of decency but because, unlike today, having a suntan was not fashionable at all as it made you look like a “farmer.”
Recognizing swimsuit-clad women by the second half of the 19th century would probably give you the hardest time ever. Besides being aesthetically unappealing, the functionality of this garment is very questionable. This time, they resembled more closely a belted dress over long bloomers, also known as baggy pants, and the main purpose was to conceal the woman’s body, which really worked. The swimwear, made from heavy flannel fabric, was opaque and sturdy enough not to rinse with water. It was until the beginning of the century, when swimming became an intercollegiate and Olympic sport, that people realized that the current swimwear design did not consider functionality.
The 19th Century: The One-Piece
The origin of the one-piece bathing suit from the end of the 19th century was revolutionary, a major stepping stone in the history of swimwear. (“History of Swimwear”) The story of one Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer, and actress, is perhaps one of the most important milestones in the evolution of swimwear. Before the one-piece sports swimsuit was accepted widely as a garment for women, Kellerman designed her own competitive bathing suit. At the time, it resembled the suit a man would wear: the garment covered her from shoulders to toes but was more form-fitting to give her room for more speed in the water. By the current standard, Kellerman’s design would look tame and was certainly not a bikini, but it was considered one of the most revealing garments at the time.
Consequently, this version of her bathing suit got her arrested. The case would be of much significance in this history because later on when she won this case, more women began following her lead despite the backlash. The fashion industry capitalized on this market and began producing more form-fitting one-piece bathing suits. Slowly by slowly, the garment started moving from the world of sport to the world of leisure and ultimately evolved stylistically to reflect the full sense of fashion that was emerging. The 20s and 30s saw the addition of embellishments such as slimmer straps, ruffles, and pockets added to the wear to allow women to express themselves on the beach. Cotton was still the most widely used material for garments, but the high-end one-pieces began taking advantage of sleeker materials like nylon following its invention in 1935. The period marked more than just a shift in women’s swimsuits. It had, even more, to do with the attitude towards them, evidenced by the Hollywood and women’s fashion magazines such as Vogue turning swimwear into an industry that was sexy and glamorous.
Two-piece bathing suits existed even before 1946. The 1940s swimwear bottoms were high-waisted, covering a woman’s navel while still leaving a sliver of the midriff visible. (“Bikini | Women in Bikinis | History of Swimwear Fashion”) However, it wasn’t until after the second world war that two Frenchmen invented the modern bikini, which exposes the navel. Jacques Heim first invented the “Atome,” which got its name because it was a very small two-piece bathing suit compared to its predecessors.
Engineer Lois Reard then came up with an even smaller two-piece bathing suit that he named “Bikini” after Bikini Island, where a nuclear test had taken place that year. Later on, Reard would explain that he chose this name because he believed his invention would be just as shocking as a nuclear bomb-and he was right! So shocking was the design at the time that he could not find any fashion models who would dare be seen in it. Aside from its obvious intention to push the limits for women’s fashion, the design also proved controversial because its main purpose was for leisure. The bikini took quite a while to catch on but eventually, it wormed its way onto some of Hollywood’s favorite starlets, including Annette Funicello and Rita Hayworth.
Not much about the bikini has changed since Louis Reard’s 1946 invention. A few attempts at furthering the invention have been made, including the “monokini” by an Austrian-American designer called Rudi Gernreich in 1964. Still, none has taken off as much as the bikini did. Today, as swimwear continues to expand its various styles, it is emphatic that we appreciate the journey of the bathing suit and the miles people went through to bring it to wear it.
Over the years, humans have loved relaxing in the water, Romans built the first swimming pools and heated pools back in the first century. Over in Japan swimming events became more common, whereas people in Europe took the water a lot slower, however, deadly infections is probably what slowed it down. Skip forward to the middle of the nineteenth century when swimming organisations started popping up all over the country, a lot in London. However, swimsuits, like what we wear today, weren’t a thing until the early twentieth century, go back to the nineteenth century, but go back to the late nineteenth century and picture a bathing costume with bloomers, blouses, stockings and shoes on top. It wasn’t till the 1930’s were western people became less paranoid about getting a tan, swimsuits started to feature lower cut backs and armholes, and women’s midriffs also started to make an appearance, before the bikini was born in Paris during the 1940s.
In the past, synthetic dyes weren’t as popular as they are now, up until the mid-nineteenth century dyes would have been extracted from animals, vegetables or minerals. In 1856 a chemist in London accidentally made mauveine (purple dye to you and me) and it took off from there. Depending on the dye, the fabric, or the effect the designer wants, that will alter the way the dye; the simplest way, water and dye. Sometimes you might want it to look more ‘uniform’ so then you would add an oxygen reagent to achieve this. Alternatively, there is a process called mordant dying, so this is a wet metallic solution and is made up of tin, chromium, iron or aluminium gets applied to the fabric, then you put the dye on top of that and the colour forms within the cloth. Or apply the dye directly to the cloth, leave the fabric in a hot solution with the dye; to get the patterns, you need to dye the fabrics that have been woven with different types of yarn usually including materials like nylon and polyester, different dyes react differently causing the pattern to form.
However, this produces a lot of waste, at this point we know anything involving dye produces loads of waste that can be harmful, now there is a way to reuse and recycle waste from production including dyes and any synthetic materials. Dyes are now purified and recycled and the left over synthetic fabrics are recycled and used to make other products, it could be something as simple as a water bottle.
Swimsuits also have to go through a lot of tests before they can go on sale to the public. The swimsuits will test the fabric, how well the colour changes (or hopefully doesn’t) by washing the swimsuits over and over in water that is either fresh, salt or chlorinated water and then exposing the swimsuits to simulated swimsuit.
Swimwear isn’t an easy business to crack, but hopefully this gave you some insight.