The Evolution of Women's Swimwear

Published: 11th May 2011
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Since the late fifteenth century women were expected to wear some form of clothing while bathing. The earliest bathing suits were large canvas affairs designed to billow out away from the body when in water and therefore completely hide the lady’s shape, this despite bathing being gender segregated until the early twentieth century. During the Victorian age, swim dresses came into fashion, full length dark flannel or serge affairs complete with long sleeves, high collar, and him below the ankles. By the 1860s, swimsuits were made of wool and became two piece, a button up jacket and three quarter trousers with hose to hide the ankles. Of course, bathing was still legally segregated in the United Kingdom at the time, so proper ladies did not have to fear gawks from lecherous men.

As Edwardian styles came into fashion, the swimsuit shrank more. Sleeves shortened, and the trousers / jacket combination was replaced with a dress and bloomers, and as time progressed, the dress became shortened. In the 1920s the swimsuit slimmed down more to a shocking, form fitting, outfit, typically one piece, without a dress and trousers only mid-thigh. Sleeves disappeared and typical of the "roaring twenties" the outfit as a whole became mostly androgynous. Bathing caps to cover a bobbed hairstyle also came into fashion at this time.

In the thirties, the swimsuit further slimmed down and became more form fitting. These would be the first of what would be considered "modern" swimsuits, and some styles may still be seen on beaches today. They were either one or two piece affairs, sleeveless, with a small skirt that barely covered the panties. The two piece suits were cut to hide or minimize midriff exposure, and the swimsuits were made of cotton but in the later thirties, latex was added.

After the war, the swimsuit shortened even more and became more form fitting. In popular modern fashion, corsets were falling out of favour, and manufacturers turned to making swimsuits more complementary to women’s bodies with tummy panels and bra cups. This also led to strapless swimsuits being introduced. Around this time, the small two piece suits started being seen on models and actresses.

In 1946, the Americans detonated a series of atomic weapons in the South Pacific Ocean under extreme media attention. That same year French fashion designer and automobile designer, Louis Reard, designed the world’s smallest swimsuit consisting of less than thirty square inches of cloth and named it after the atoll where the nuclear tests were performed, the Bikini. His suit was too risqué to be displayed publically and he even had trouble finding a model for the suit, so Jacques Heim, his rival designer, was able to sell his larger swimsuit, the Atom, to the public. The name Bikini, however, stuck and the style of suit eventually took that name, and has since become the most popular design of female swimwear with sales of greater than £500 million annually. The style offers many variations, from a large low cut briefs to a very skimpy high cut that leaves little to the imagination. It has also expanded from strictly swimwear to be used in many athletic events such as beach volleyball and running events.

In just over one hundred and fifty years, women’s swimsuits have evolved from an ensemble more apt for drowning than swimming to a few pieces of cloth that begs the question of, "what’s the point." But the allure of what’s hidden underneath the few scraps of cloth in a bikini will allow the style to remain popular for many years to come.

Crew Clothing have just released their newest range of swimwear for summer 2011, which can be seen here:

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