A Complete History of the Swimsuit: From Bathing Gowns to the String Bikini

Leah Bourne
A Complete History of the Swimsuit: From Bathing Gowns to the String Bikini
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No article of clothing has captured the public’s attention and been as polarizing over the years quite like the bathing suit. More than just an expression of style, what bathing suit cuts are in style tend to also be an indicator of the political climate.

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During the Victorian-era, for instance, women would hit the beach in completely covered swimsuits that often including stalkings. By the 1920s, swimsuit hemlines were rising, reflecting the swinging culture of the time. Just not too high—beach censors, who would roam beaches measuring how high a woman’s swimsuit was, were de rigueur at the time. By the 1960s, a decade that saw a revolution in social norms, it was perfect acceptable to wear a bikini to the beach.

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Cut to today, and we live in an anything goes swimwear world, where swimsuits also equal big business. The revenue of the worldwide swimwear industry by 2015, according to research firm Global Industry Analysts, will reach an estimated $17.6 billion. Now that’s a lot of bikinis.

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Click through the gallery above to see how swimsuits have changed over the decades, and let us know your favorite bathing suit decade in the comments below!

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Click through for a histor of the bathing suit through the decades!

Early 19th Century: The Bathing Gown

In the late 18th century and early 19th century, bathing suits were actually referred to as “bathing gowns" because that's exactly what they were—full-on dresses. "Bathing machines" or carriages were rolled out into the water so the bather could be immersed in the water in private (talk about modesty). This illustration from 1825 shows women of the time heading into the ocean in these bathing machines that went directly into the water.

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Late 19th Century: All-Covered-Up

Things didn't change much in the Victorian-era, especially for women, and swim outfits continuued to cover most of a woman's body, and often included stockings. Here, a Victorian-era woman dressed for the beach.

Photo: London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

Early 20th Cenutry: Swimming For Sport

Swimming as a sport began to catch on in the early 20th century, in large part because of the Olympic Games in Athens held in 1906. And because swimming as a sport requires mobility, bathing suits became increasingly functional, but not without a few scandals along the way. In 1907, Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman, the first woman to swim across the English Channel, was arrested in Boston for wearing a form-fitting, one-piece suit. Interestingly, arrests for "revealing" swimwear were not uncommon at the time. Here, female competitors in the RSC swimming gala in 1906 posing for a portrait. 

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

1920s: Bathing Suits Get Shorter (But Not Too Short)

It was during the 1920s that Australian swimwear brand Speedo produced the first non-wool bathing suit. Hollywood began to glamourize the bathing suit simultaneously. 1925's "Sennett Bathing Beauties" featured provactive bathing suits for the time. Still, beach censors were common at the time, and would measure how short women's bathing suits were.

1930s: The Bathing Suit Becomes Functional

Jantzen, the bathing suit innovator of the time, produced bathing suits in the 1930s that were more form-fitting than what had existed previously. Here, an ad of the brand from the decade.

1940s: The Pin-Up Arrives In Style

By the 1940s, swimsuits took on a modern style. Pin-up style was the "it" look of time, and no one had it mastered quite like Betty Grable, pictured here.

Photo: Photo Via RealTalkIssues.com

1946: The Bikini Is Born

French designer Louis Réard introduced the "Bikini" in 1946. Unable to find a fashion model to wear the suit, he had to hire a nude dancer from the Casino de Paris. As for how the name bikini came about? Apparently Réard chose the name because of atomic tests at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. His thinking was that his bikini would have the same explosive impact as the splitting of the atom.

Photo: Photo Via BikiniScience.com

1950s: Bathing Suits Get Structure

The bathing suits worn by Marilyn Monroe and Bettie Page in the 1950s were designed to offer the structured support of undergarments.

Photo: Photo Via Thirteen.org

1960s: The Teeny, Weeny Bikini Goes Mainstream

Thanks to the California beach scene, the teeny, weeny bikini went mainstream in the 1960s. Fittingly, in 1964 the now infamous Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue made its debut, featuring a model in what is now considered a pretty modest white bikini. 

Photo: Photo Via Wikipedia

1970s: Farrah, Farrah, Farrah

Even though it was no longer taboo to wear a bikini, it was the now iconic rust colored one-piece bathing suit that actress Farrah Fawcett wore in a poster in 1976 that made waves. The poster went on to sell over 20 million copies, and remains one of the most famous swimsuits of all time. 

1980s: The High-Cut Bikini Becomes A Thing

The cut du jour for swimsuits in the 1980s? That would be skimpy high-cut bikinis and swimsuits, a suit cut that showed off the sun-worshiping, tanning culture of the time. 

Photo: Photo Via DoYouRemember.com

1990s: Sporty Swimsuits Make A Comeback

The 1990s were all about sporty swimsuits. Olympic runner Florence Griffith Joyner was known for her sporty (albeit flashy) one-piece swimsuits. Pamela Anderson created an even bigger stir in a red, high-cut red bathing suit, her uniform as a lifeguard on "Baywatch." 

Photo: Photo Via Marie Claire

The 2000s: The String Bikini Years

We probably have the wave of Brazilian bombshells (most notably Gisele Bündchen) to thank for the itty-bitty string bikinis that were inescapable during the 2000s. 

Photo: Photo Via Instagram

Now: The Return Of Retro

Thanks to celebrities from Taylor Swift to Beyoncé (pictured above), the retro bathing suit, whether a high-waisted bikini, or a one-piece, is having a major resurgance. Unlike in previous decades though, the major theme of swimwear today is anything goes.  

Photo: Photo Via Instagram

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