From bathing box to bikini: the evolution of swimwear

Written by Simone | 25th June 2018

As the days grow longer and the summer holidays draw closer, you’re probably longing for beach days and fun in the sun. To help get you in the mood for some sunshine, swimming and sunbathing, it’s time to take a closer look at the history of swimwear and how it evolved over the years. 

The early years

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 wear woollen long-john numbers - a style which remained largely unchanged for the entire century. To ensure that not even a hint of flesh would be revealed, the women's dresses even had weights sewn into the hems to hold the fabric down by their ankles. And 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.

A women who had changed in the privacy of a bathing machine and then been wheeled into the water, to enjoy a dip

Function and form

Days at the beach involving being rolled into the ocean in a 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 world-record swimmer who was arrested for indecent exposure when she revealed her legs in a one-piece suit at a beach in the United States. While the US took a little longer to embrace this controversial style, the one piece design with exposed arms and legs became accepted attire for much of Europe.

The one piece swimsuit showing exposed arms and legs became accepted attire for much of Europe in the early 1900s

Sun, not swimming

As the roaring 1920s rolled around, beachgoers of the era began to desire a tan. This trend is often attributed to none other than French fashion designer Coco Chanel who wished to show off her lavish lifestyle and culture, perhaps proof of a life of leisure that went beyond a simple dip in the sea. Although excessive exposure of skin was still a big concern, as time went on necklines began to get lower and upper thighs were revealed. By the end of the 1930s it became quite common for men to have a bare chest at the beach. And as the world globalised in the run-up to World War II, swimwear started to take on a very different form.

Man in bathing suit on a beach in The Netherlands

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 as beachgoers had a morally sound reason to wear something a little more revealing. In the United States, swimwear entered 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.

Hollywood starlets and pin-ups went on to further popularise more revealing beachwear

The birth of the bikini

Following World War II the first bikinis began appearing on beaches. Named after Bikini Atoll - an American nuclear testing site - the title of this two-piece was in 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 success of the bikini, further celebrated by the explosion of sexual freedom seen in the 1960s, soared. This opened the door to the variety of swimwear we see today.

The most iconic bikini of all time was the one worn by Ursula Andress in the 1962 James Bond film 'Dr. No'

The tankini takes over

The late 1990s saw the introduction of the tankini to the swimwear scene. The tankini sought to combine the flexibility of the bikini with the modesty of a one-piece swimsuit, and it worked. Anne Cole, swimwear designer and mogul of the swimwear industry, was hailed as an innovator in a field that had seen little recent modernisation. The tankini sold exceptionally well and quickly took up nearly a third of the swimwear market.

Anne Cole's tankini combined the flexibility of a bikini and the modesty of a one-piece swimsuit

Modern-day swimwear

Today we see a huge variety of swimwear on the market. A popular modern style is the bandeaukini: a bandeau top, without straps (or with a detachable halter strap) worn with a bikini bottom. And for those who wish to make the most of feminine curves, the trikini swimsuits is favoured by women of all ages, shapes and sizes. This swimsuit is a combination of a bikini and one piece swimsuit, made of one single piece of cloth that connects the upper part to the lower part. It leaves many parts of the body such as the hips and the belly exposed, just like the classic two piece. Who knows what’s next for our beaches? For now it’s those classic 20th century styles; the one piece, the bikini and the tankini that remain the staples of the summer months.

Are you prepared for the sunshine months? For great styles take a look at our weekly Fashion auctions, including a range of exciting vintage looks and pieces from leading designers. Whether you’re looking to buy or sell fashion online, you can do it with just one free Catawiki account. Access over 80 auction categories and benefit from our team of in-house experts. Create your free account to get started.


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