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San Clemente Journal

The Evolution of the Bathing Suit

May 22, 2019 10:59AM ● By Anne Batty


by Anne Batty

For most women
, fashion is passion, and as beach dwellers fashionable bathing attire is primary. But while we might not think that the those little strings occupying our beach bags today have anything to do with how and where women fit in society, archived changes in  bathing suit styles prove differently. Not only do they indicate social change, but more specifically they indicate the evolving idea of a women’s role in society. And while our beach attire with its detail and styling gives us pleasure, it also acts as a mirror of what's happening around us and what's changing in the culture at large.

 1800 – Puritanical and Demure
During this time, a woman’s purity and chasteness were her greatest assets. Single women weren’t even allowed to speak to a man without a married woman present to chaperon. So forget bathing suits. In this era, it was bathing gowns.
Remaining true to the Victorian ideals of the times – puritanical and demure – women covered up when visiting the shore. Frocks were buttoned to the neck, covering the shoulder and hiding the “gams” with tea-length hems and ruffled bloomers, and suits were made from heavy fabric sturdy enough not to rise in the water. 
In addition women could also rent a bathing machine to hide themselves from prying male eyes. This machine was a little outhouse on wheels pulled into the water where a woman could discreetly hop in and out of the water without anyone seeing her in her suit. It was the trend of the era to be a chaste miss or a modest Mrs., and the bathing mores of the times reflected as much.

Bathing machines

 1900 – Values Shift Slowly 
When the Victorian era came to a close, its stuffy ideals and prudishness came into question. Although making a splash in the 1900s still meant wearing a beach dress, much to society’s dismay, bathing garments were becoming more fitted and shorter. The billowy, heavy layers of the previous era were shaved down by a couple of inches into a light dress, and the well-tailored sailor swimsuit soon became the height of beach fashion. But while this smaller silhouette signaled cultural change, the bathing police were still on guard, actually pulling out their tape measures to ensure that ladies’ skirts were not too short. 

1910 – Functionality Arrives
As a decade passed the suffragette movement reared its head, paving the way for changes in women’s lives that would soon trickle down into swimwear styles. Women began working outside the home, discovering they could do just as much as their male counterparts. Female athleticism emerged, and with it the realization that current bathing suit designs weren’t functional. So as the sport grew, swimsuits became less heavy and more streamlined, paving the way for the styles to come. And with that development, the first woman to swim across the English Channel, Annette Kellerman, was arrested in Boston for wearing a form-hugging one piece suit that had neither collars nor buttons, allowing her to cut through water without getting tangled up in voluminous skirts. Her bold move triggered a huge change in swimwear fashion. Fabrics became less restrictive and heavy, arms were exposed, and hemlines crept up to mid-thigh high.

 1920 – The Flappers Emerge
The 1920s rolled around and swimsuits got smaller. The flappers of the era were bored with the seen-but-not-heard Victorian female. Daringly sexual, reckless and pleasure-seeking it was no surprise that their bathing suits reflected just that. In support, Hollywood and Vogue Magazine endorsed the idea of swimwear being sexy and glamorous. Suits ditched the sleeves, raised the hemlines further and became form-fitted in the bust and waist. It was absolutely scandalous!

1930 – Times They Were A-Changing
This era saw women not only working outside the home; many were attending universities and finding job opportunities comparable to those of men. As women evolved so did their swimsuits. 
   The two main swimwear styles of that time were the maillot and the dress-maker. The maillot featured a one-piece suit fitted at the torso with a tight skirt covering the crotch, and also included a stylish two-piece tank top paired with boy shorts on the bottom. The dressmaker was less fitted and had an a-line skirt that covered the crotch. 
All suits were cut to show off more leg and more back skin than ever before. Spaghetti straps were in; making suits far more practical. But most importantly, the last of the knee-length bathing dresses went out of vogue.

1940 – Enter the Bikini
The ‘40s brought on the war, and as men went off to fight women took on the role of heads of families. In these changing roles women experienced a newfound ability to care for themselves; making them bolder and more comfortable in their skin. 
Two-piece bathing suits became more and more common in those years. Still covering a woman’s navel and showing only a bit of midriff, it was this design that would eventually move fashion toward the bikini style. 


 Featuring less fabric than its predecessors, the first modern Bikini was introduced in 1946 by French designer Louis Reard. Its name was inspired by the war’s US atomic test named Bikini Atoll. Its design was so risqué that no American woman would model it, and Reard was forced to hire Micheline Bernardini, a Parisian showgirl to wear the suit for its launching.

1950 – Its a Hollywood Thing
At this time luxury swimwear designers were becoming bolder and it was beginning to be perfectly normal for women to wear two-piece suits in public. The idolization of movie icons like Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe was a game changer, and belly-barring was becoming less shocking. 
  Although most suits remained near the waist just above the navel, there was a re-newed emphasis on the bust. Tops were featuring haltered and bra-like designs, modest but revealing enough to put the sizzle in sun time. Swimsuits were fast becoming less about swimming and more about looking hot, hot, hot!

 1960 – From Mild to Wild
Regarded as one of the most vital turning points in the history of fashion, the hippie movement encouraged women to wear whatever they wanted … no shame, no embarrassment. Birth control became more available and reliable, facilitating women’s sexuality even further. As a result, Bikini-style swimwear got smaller, the fabric thinner and more colorful revealing just as much in back as in front. Second wave feminism was telling everyone to defy the norm and to wear whatever they wanted when they wanted; to embrace their bodies and share without shame. The movement toward anything goes had begun. 

1980 – Pumping It Up
The ‘80s ushered in a sexual assertiveness. Sculpting the body in the gym became vogue, and in the business world women were pushing against corporate America’s glass ceiling. That assertiveness birthed a more exotic bathing suit form, one as forward-thinking as the woman wearing it. Bikini lines lifted higher, 

 highlighting the hips and elongating the leg. Smaller bottoms revealed more cheek, and women’s confidence was not only breaking the glass ceiling, it was expressing their sexuality. 

1990 – Don’t Stop Now
Women’s independence continued its growth into the ‘90s. Women were furthering their education and living independent lifestyles well into their ‘30s.
   Achieving success and making themselves happy became their goals, and bathing suit styles continued its reflection of this attitude. Cuts were becoming even more risqué, with cleavage and body parts more 
exposed, and prints, colors and designs more reflective of a woman’s personality.

Present Day – From Here to Where?
As societal mores continue evolving, and woman’s independence continues reflecting diversity and sexuality, it’s obvious that swimwear designs will follow suit. The swimwear police have fallen by the wayside. Today, the choice to cover up or strip down is up for grabs. 
  No rules apply. And if the past is anything like the future, it’s looking like the penchant for unrestricted change is here to stay.