Swimwear fashion has changed dramatically since the Victorian era of modesty. By the mid-1800s, mixed bathing became more acceptable and bathing costumes became more publicly visible. Bathing suits were not widely manufactured like they are today so most women sewed their own using patterns published in popular magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar.
New styles followed fashion trends and often changed from year to year. Men wore one-piece knit suits with short sleeves and knee-length pants. By the late 1800s, two-piece versions consisted of short sleeved or sleeveless tunics over knee-length pants.
With the popularity of swimming came laws setting minimum standards for beach attire. Bathing costumes were made of dark wool flannel or serge and the fabric remained stiff so as not to reveal the female form.
Wearing a bathing costume that was too short could get the beachgoer cited, as they could not be more than six inches above the knees. Men were required to cover their torsos at most public beaches and pools.
The beginning of a dramatic change in women’s swimwear was marked by a scandalous event in 1907. Annette Kellerman, the Australian champion swimmer and later movie star, wore a revolutionary new one-piece, form-fitting sleeveless bathing suit to a swimming demonstration in Boston.
She was promptly arrested for indecent exposure, yet over the next twenty years the one-piece became the norm for women.
The fist “Bathing Suit Day” was held on May 16, 1916 at Madison Square Garden, where new styles of swimwear were modeled. Since then, most beauty contest participants show off their physique in a bathing suit.
The post WWI generation made sports and recreation a bigger part of social life. In 1921, Jantzen Knitting Mills of Portland patented form fitting wool knitted swimsuits that held their shape wet and dry. Their advertising slogan, “The suit that changed bathing into swimming” was very successful.
Gone were the apron skirts and stockings, and both male and female swimsuits resembled each other for the next fifteen years. As time went on, the swimsuit got smaller and the fabric improved with the development of latex and nylon.
The 1940s were characterized by the two-piece suit. In 1942, as part of rationing during WWII, the United States War Production Board reduced the amount of fabric allowed for the manufacture of women’s swimwear by 10%. Yet it was the introduction of the bikini in 1946 that took the world of fashion by storm.
The controversy that it caused in the United States was almost as big as the event for which it was named – the atomic testing in the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. For a time it was banned in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Belgium and Australia, and was prohibited in many US states.