The Swimsuit: A Brief History

Style Features

“I want to swim. And I can’t swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothes line.” – Annette Kellerman, first woman to swim the English Channel, “Diving Venus” and advocate for the change of women’s swimwear.

From the deathtraps of the Victorian Era to the Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, the relationship between women and the swimsuit is fraught and complex. More than any other garment worn in public, the swimsuit demands a close alignment between the body and garment: as the swimsuit strips away its wearer’s social markers, and instead places the body on display. The evolution of the swimsuit also charts a woman’s power—her athleticism, her right to leisure and freedom she feels by baring her body while basking in the sun. Certainly, not all women endure an icky patriarchal pressure to get their bodies beach ready (a pressure imposed to sell some kind of diet fad and to keep women “afraid to come out of the locker”). In fact, women from Kellerman and Esther Williams to Coco Chanel, Christie Brinkley and Kate Upton have not only made millions off of, but helped evolve the swimsuit.

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A photo posted by Kate Upton (@kateupton) on

In the mid 1800s, the advent of the railroads opened up the shores of the Atlantic, and people from England’s pebble beached Royal Pavilion to the States’ Jersey, Florida and California coastlines took to the waves. Swimming was a sport people of all classes could enjoy, and it was touted as a leisure activity that increased circulation, sped metabolism, cleansed the body and improved muscle tone (though it wasn’t until the Coco Chanel and her St. Tropez Set that the suntan became fashionable, so parasols and hats were beach-musts). As for the swimsuits, modesty and decency laws restricted what women could wear to swim in public. Victorian England dictated women wear bathing garments made of heavy serge and wool. Skirts were weighted down with shot, and leather shoes, laced up past the knee, were part of common bathing attire. Rather than give up their chance to swim, women put on these hazardous bathing garments, and many lost their lives drowning in the English Channel.

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As the 19th century drew to a close, women like Agnes Beckwith (who famously swam from London Bridge to Greenwich in 1875—that’s six miles) and Amelia Bloomer, a designer known for pioneering the Rational Clothing Movement, helped evolve women’s swimwear to a less dangerous garment known as the Princess suit. Made of lighter cotton, the Princess suit was comprised of a dress worn over pantaloons, or bloomers, as they came to be known, which allowed for a more fluid movement of the limbs while swimming. Princess suits required less and less fabric as time and social mores progressed, and usually were nautically themed in red and navy with white trim. Yet, even on American sand, patrolmen surveyed the beach with measuring tape and would fine or arrest women who exposed too much calf.

Princess suits were still cumbersome and did not allow free range of movement. As a result, most women did not swim very far—a condition that was attributed to women’s inherent fear of the water. Australian swimmer, Annette Kellerman (portrayed by Esther Williams in the 1952 box office smash, Million Dollar Mermaid) fought against these ridiculous swimsuits, pointing out that men were permitted to swim wearing a knit one-piece with scoop necks, short sleeves and shorts-style legs. In 1907, Kellerman was arrested in Boston for wearing a one-piece knit suit while demonstrating her diving and swimming skills in a vaudeville show. Charged with indecent exposure, Kellerman lobbied for the one-piece claiming Princess suits “have caused more deaths by drowning than cramps.” The judge showed leniency, and Kellerman enjoyed fame fighting for safer female swimsuits. American studios snatched up the “underwater ballerina,” who went on to star in films like Siren of the Sea (1911) and Mermaid.

As the 1920s ushered in a variety of postwar freedoms, the swimsuit as we know it today was born. Decency laws were more relaxed on the West Coast, where the Hollywood economy was blossoming and the business of selling sex was in its nascent stages. So came the beach babes, women clad in one-pieces (still made of wool) posing flirtatiously on the sand. In Oregon, the first company to manufacture “bathing suits” was Jantzen in 1921, followed by knitting mills in California such as Cole of California, Mabs of Hollywood and Speedo in Australia. Wool would be the predominant swimsuit fabric for another 20 years, though the French would experiment with lavish maillots, strapless suits, all leading up to the 1946 bikini.

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Chanel was instrumental in taking swimsuit from taboo to fashionable. The swimsuit embodied much of Chanel’s design aesthetic—elegant, wearable and favoring streamlined shapes. In 1925, she designed a series of jersey knit swimsuits to be worn in Segei Diaghilev’s Parisian ballet, Le Train Bleau, which was named for the train that took jet-setters to the Riviera for holiday. The ballet included set designs by Picasso and music by Cocteau, reflecting a French sensibility that melded the arts and fashion. Chanel and sportswear designer Jean Patou began selling maillots in Parisian boutiques, and the St. Tropez set couldn’t get enough. Society clientele, as well as America film stars like Joan Crawford and Gloria Swanson, were early followers of this new St. Tropez resort look, which included a suntan and a fit body, and maillots worn, not only on the beach, but under caftans in the evening out on the town. The look spread to the States, where the political climate supported the emancipation of women in many areas of their lives. The flappers of the 1920s cast aside the corset, and instead opted for bras and panties, and swimwear inspired lingerie, designed for ease of movement and to tout a more athletic, sport-abled body. It was during this decade that the swimsuit helped popularize two body-taming trends that are with us today: the diet pill and the sunlamp.

Today, we know both trends are unhealthy, yet many women succumb to the pressure to be thin and tan in a swimsuit by any means necessary. Women who were fighting for the most fundamental rights of citizenship would be horrified at how these trends have evolved to encourage feelings of self-loathing and conformity to beauty standards that are limiting, time consuming and used to shame women into consuming products to fix their body “problems.” Not all women, however, are such passive consumers. The ladies over at Sandy the Zine remind us that the only thing you need to have a beach-body ready is your body.

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A photo posted by SANDY (@sandythezine) on

A century after the swimsuit claimed the lives of hundreds of women—all in an effort to keep the female body hidden from society, it became a pivotal vessel to sell a new feminine body ideal. By the mid 1950s, Chanel and her sylph-like suntan flappers had been replaced by a buxom bikini-clad Brigitte Bardot (And God Created Woman). In 1964, the first issue of the Swimsuit Edition by Sports Illustrated was published, showcasing new swimsuit styles on top models. The Pirelli Calendar was launched the same year, and ever since, sex appeal and the swimsuit have become inseparable. The twentieth century saw the evolution of the swimsuit from modest to skimpy, all the while regulated by people other than its wearer. From decency laws to pressure to achieve a Perfect Ten body, the swimsuit carries with it a complex history of regulations imposed on those who wear it. On the other hand, its evolution is the result of the advocacy of such early feminists like Annette Kellerman, Agnes Beckwith and Amelia Bloomer. These women worked hard to ensure the rights of women to move freely both on land and in the sea, without cumbersome constraints. This beach season, if you find yourself ashamed to step out in that two-piece, remember the sisters who came before you, fighting for your right to bear your bum—cellulite and all.

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