The surprising history of the swimming suit

At this time of the year, when the front-page of the magazines is being taken over by headlines like: “How to choose the perfect bathing suit for your body shape”, “Extreme swimming suits for sexy women”, “Get ready for bikini season in only 15 minutes”, it is time to question yourselves: how can one tiny article of clothing (or rather two) have the power to send millions of people into an uncontrolled frenzy? What’s the secret that has been keeping the attention of top fashion designers for ages and consumed so much of their creative resources?

It all started with a fig leaf

We all know what swimsuits look like today, but they have come a long way! Of course, the original swimsuit was the body itself, or, going to the extreme, it was the topless fig leaf bikini used by Adam and Eva as confirmed by the Bible. All in all, bathing apparel, in one shape or another, has been around for over 2.000 years. This article is intended to give a short overview on the surprising history of the bathing suit, since its first recorded use in Greece around 300 B.C. to the dramatic changes it has been the victim of while entering the new Millennium.

In spite of their apparent successful start off in the ancient Greece, our European ancestors regarded the sea as a source of physical therapy instead of recreation and thus, swim wear interest dried out on the way.
During the 18th century, sea bathing became a fashionable activity. Still, men and women bathed infrequently and it was considered properly to keep the skin white and untouched by the sun. Women avoided swimming too much – actually the contact with the water was restrained to a brief dip in the water away from the eyes of the men – since the prevailing attitude of the day was that only men should swim. The earliest bathing suit could be described as a kind of “bathing gown” for women made of a heavy flannel which would weigh down the swimmer, and a wool garment with long sleeves and legs similar to long underwear for men. The first suits were far from practical or comfortable, they were rather modest than stylish. The funny rumour about ladies sewing lead weights into the hem of the “bathing gown” goes back to this period and it is in fact true, being meant to prevent the dress from floating up and exposing feminine legs.

Cover up, open up

The early 1800’s marked the beginning of a revolution in swim wear and Americans – surprisingly! – made the first step by discovering the beaches for seaside recreation. Bathing became a recreational activity whereas previously it had been merely a therapeutic device. Technological innovations, increased recreation time and improved economic conditions became the proper background for a change in women’s swim wear. The Victorian-style bathing costumes were becoming burdensome and the need for a special costume that would be free enough to allow the wearer to engage in sports became obvious.

1920’s women swimwear


By the end of the 19th century, swimming had become an “art,” as well as an Olympic sport. In this environment, it finally became acceptable for women to swim and, with it, women’s bathing suits entered a totally new “daring era”, becoming lighter and more athletic.  In 1913, inspired by the introduction of female athletes into Olympic swimming events, the designer Carl Jantzen made the first truly functional bathing suit, a close-fitting one-piece with shorts on the bottom and short sleeves up top. 

During the crazy 20s, recreation and leisure time were increasing exponentially and swimwear was becoming skimpier, slimmer and sexier. The new generation of designers turned the swimming suit into a two piece garment, showing more and more of the female form and leaving the beauty up to form and function itself. It was not long before consequences started to appear. In 1909, Australian Annette Kellerman was arrested in the United States for wearing a loose, one piece suit, which was paradoxically to become the new fashion in few years. By the mid 1920s Vogue magazine was telling its readers that “the newest thing for the sea is a jersey bathing suit as near a maillot as the unwritten law will permit”.

The bikini revolution…

In the battle of liberating women from prudish fashion, on 5th July 1946 the French designer introduced, for the first time in history, the famous “bikini” – from the Latin bi, meaning “two,” and kini, meaning “square inches of Lycra”. He found his inspiration for his 2-piece creation in the euphoria of the French  Riviera, following the end of the Nazi occupation. The suit was named “bikini” after a few small South Pacific islands called Bikini Atoll – where the United States had established a nuclear test site. The name was intended to express their supposed explosive effect on the viewer: the world’s smallest bathing suit – how small? Louis Réard came up with his universal criteria for measuring it: “A bikini is not a bikini unless it can be pulled through a wedding ring.” – was about to take over the world. The menace of the conquest was so terrifying that no model was willing to wear such an outfit, so the bikini made its debut on a stripper, Micheline Bernardini.  

The first bikini worn in public by Micheline Bernardini


The new explosive creation became soon subject to controversial reactions. The bikini was banned in both Italy and Spain, the American fashion industry deemed as well the “inconceivable thing to wear” – but only one year later the American virtuosity was to stop at the gates of Hollywood, when stars like Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner were photographed wearing them. But others, particularly French vacationers, were delighted from the beginning, finding in the wearing of bikini the simple pleasures of the sea and the sun and the celebration of freedom. 

The glamour girls of the French Riviera launched the bikini as a global phenomenon, leading the way again in beach fashion in the early ’60s. Despite the promising beginning – the modesty of their coverage, as compared to current standards – the bikini would undergo even more drastic shrinkage as the years went on. 

Marilyn Monroe wearing a fashionable swimming suit

The young French actress Brigitte Bardot wore hers scandalously low on her hips with (or without) an unseenable top, with her cascading blonde hair and complete comfort with her body.  Over the ocean, Marilyn Monroe conquered the world with a pair of white panties and a bandeau top.

…and what is left of it

More than a little two-piece bathing suit, the bikini made its own contribution during the 1970s to the sexual revolution, to the changing relationship between men and women in general. The “no bra look” and the “what you see is what you get” message opened the way for the “burning bras” revolution – the protest of women against prejudices and complexes.

The evolution of Réard’s creation has generally been toward the smaller, especially with the emergence of string and thong bikinis. The 1960s have known the smartest and most daring designers of all times – having men and women pay more and more for less and less fabric! Not a surprise anymore when Rudi Gernrich came out with his monokini (the topless swimsuit) in 1964.

In the 1980s, the popular thong bikini was introduced into American fashion. Fashion designers claimed the origin of the thong bikini to be from the traditional clothing of Amazonian tribal groups in Brazil  – what a shocking return to origins! –  the thong bikini offered the scantiest coverage yet imagined in the rear of the suit.

The swimming suit of today

In its short, modern history of 60 years, the bikini has managed to repeatedly shock the world with its ever more revealing nature. Nonetheless, the history of the swimming suits is hardly finished. In the post-string minimalist era of the 2000s, fashion designers will, without a doubt, continue to experiment with the “smallest bathing suit in the world”, which marvelously adapted to all fashion crisis and fought all challenges with great success.

Fashion designers of the 2000s continue to revamp the old bikini and innovate new styles for the two-piece swimsuit, covering and uncovering permanently. This process may go on for a long time and the results are the growing selection of swimwear – thong bikini, string bikini, tankini, etc.

Today, each of us wears a swimming suit, under a form or another. Even if our option is nudity, we are still talking about a “swimming suit”, since we define “nudity” in reference to the “absence of the swimming suit”. Had there not been a coverage involved, there would be no uncoverage to speak about.

The swimming suit of modern times

With all these facts on your mind, now, before going to the swimming pool, we should take a careful look at the bathing suit we intend to put on. And we might find out that this a piece of material has a lot to say – it reflects the rules, the beliefs, the controversies and the changes of the society we are living in.

More on the history of the bathing suit at:


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