From Bathing Box to Bikini - Swimwear Through the Ages

Tomorrow (June 21st) marks the first day of summer and the last chance to get in on our exclusive vintage swimwear auction which Sigrid Markus, fashion auctioneer at Catawiki, states: ““[...] is all about the brands and the designs they have created to make swimwear fashionable. From Christian Dior to Dolce & Gabbana, fashionistas have the opportunity to snap up a stylish classic for the summer and impress their friends with items that simply cannot be found on the high street.”  

As our auction has covered such a wonderful range of styles from leading designers, and we all want to be ready for those sunshine months, we thought we would take a closer look at the history of swimwear and how it has evolved through the years. When the first tourists started showing up to the coast of Margate nearly 250 years ago, kick-starting the desire for British seaside holidays, they probably wouldn’t have dared to imagine a Speedo or string-bikini! In 2016 however the world of beachwear can make for some wild fashion statements.

The Early Years - 19th Century

While the first pre-Victorian public bathers often did so in the nude, the early 19th century and Victorian era set in a place a much stricter moral code with regards to public decency - and with that came the birth of swimwear. Female beach goers and bathers in the 1800s would be covered nearly head to toe in long gowns and dresses while the men would be wearing woolen long-john numbers which would remain largely unchanged in style for the entire century. Just to ensure that not even a hint of flesh would pop out and scandalise the entire beach, the women's dresses even had weights sewn into the hems to hold the fabric down by their ankles as they entered the water! As if that were not enough, many of the most popular beaches would have bathing machines - wooden, wheeled boxes which could be used to roll a woman into water totally shielded from prying eyes.

Coastal photgraphy from the late 1800s

Function and Form

Thankfully, days at the beach involving being rolled into the ocean in a claustrophobic wooden box did not last for long. In the early 1900s swimsuits began to lose a little fabric and became a little more practical. This was largely thanks to Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer who suffered an arrest for indecent exposure when bringing her one-piece suit to the United States. While the US took a little longer, the one piece design with exposed arms and legs began to become accepted attire for much of Europe.

 

Sun, Not Swimming

As the world moved towards the roaring 1920s beachgoers began to desire a tan, a proof of their life of leisure that went beyond a simple dip in the sea. This trend is often attributed to non other than Coco Chanel who wished to show off her lavish lifestyle and culture - perhaps a precursor to today's “hot-dog legs” poolside Instagram shots! Although public nudity was still a big concern, as time went on necklines began to get lower and thighs were revealed. By the end of the 1930s it became quite common for men to be barechested at the beach and as the world globalised in the run-up to World War II swimwear took on a form much more recognizable to us today.

Coney Island, United States - 19136

 

Pinups and Two-Pieces

During World War II the rationing of material lead to superfluous parts of the swimsuit being discarded. The popularity of the two-piece swimsuit soared in conjunction - finally beachgoers had a morally sound reason to wear something a little more revealing! In the United States this coincided with swimwear entering the national consciousness with publications such as Sports Illustrated taking advantage of beach goers new found freedom. The rise of Hollywood starlets and pin-up posters went on to further popularise more revealing beachwear and the public’s view toward fashion rapidly liberalised.

 

The Birth of the Bikini

Following World War II the first bikinis began appearing on beaches. These were named for the Bikini Atoll - a site of nuclear testing by the Americans during the Second World War - a reference to the ‘explosive’ effect such a garment would have on the viewer! The bikini was introduced at a Paris fashion show by designer Louis Reard and coincided with the wide availability of nylon - important in swimwear for its durability and quick drying properties. More traditional, modest, one piece swimsuits remained popular but the bikini, pushed along by the explosion of sexual freedom seen in the 1960s was popular among the circles with high-exposure - most importantly those in Hollywood - and opened the door to the variety of swimwear we see today.

 

Tankinis and Today

The late 1990s saw the introduction of the tankini to the swimwear market. The tankini sought to combine the flexibility of the bikini with the modesty of a swimsuit, and it worked! Anne Cole, a mogul of the swimwear industry, was hailed as an innovator in a space that had seen little recent modernisation. The tankini sold like gangbusters and quickly took up nearly a third of the swimwear market. Today we see a huge variety of swimwear, who knows what’s next for our beaches but it is those 20th century styles; the one piece, the bikini and the tankini that remain the staples of the summer months.

Burberry London Tankini on Catawiki

For more great vintage styles take a look at Catawiki's weekly fashion auctions.

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