Friday, August 3, 2012


In the days of antiquity, and even much later, everybody bathed (splashed around, swam) in the buff. Seems the most comfortable way to go, so how in the name of Neptune did that get-up from 1858 on the left come to be? Certainly there was no law against swimming nude even in the United Kingdom until the mid-19th century. Though prior to that, towns were free to write their own laws against nude swimming. Bath, the popular summer stomping ground of Britain’s upper crust, was a forerunner in the cover-it-up trend. Take a look at the code of dress for men in the Bath Corportation bathing code dress of 1737:

“It is Ordered Established and Decreed by this Corporation that no Male person above the age of ten years shall at any time hereafter go into any Bath or Baths within this City by day or by night without a Pair of Drawers and a Waistcoat on their bodies.”

Needless to say, a lot of men in the United Kingdom who were accustomed to splashing around in their birth suits didn’t think much of that and continued to do as they pleased until nude swimming was eventually banned in 1860. It was with much protest that they eventually pulled on their drawers (calecons as they were called). However, it wasn’t until the 1870s when the first men’s bathing suits came into being in the form of short red and white striped drawers. Women also bathed in the nude at the spas, but were forced to cover up by the 1670s. Here’s a description of a ladies’ bathing costume written by Celia Fiennes in 1687:

The Ladyes go into the bath with Garments made of a fine yellow canvas, which is stiff and made large with great sleeves like a parson’s gown; the water fills it up so that it is borne off that your shape is not seen, it does not cling close as other linning, which Lookes sadly in the poorer sort that go in their own linning. The Gentlemen have drawers and wastcoates of the same sort of canvas, this is the best linning, for the bath water will Change any other yellow.”

In the 18th century, women wore "bathing gowns", long dresses made of fabrics that wouldn’t become transparent when wet. Weights were sewn into the hems so the skirts wouldn’t rise up in the water. Men wore a form-fitting wool garment with long sleeves and legs similar to underwear. This style would change very little over the next one hundred years.

It was in the 19th century that the woman’s two-piece swimsuit first emerged. It was a gown that fell from the shoulders to the knees and was worn with leggings going down to the ankles. In the United States, beauty contests with women in bathing costumes became popular from the 1880s, though they were generally frowned upon.

Annette Kellerman – Wikipedia
 A Splash of Scandal
It may seem unimaginable today, but in 1907, the Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman created a furor when she appeared in an underwater ballet show in the United States wearing a swimsuit that exposed not only her neck and her arms, but shocker of shockers, her legs! It should come as no surprise Ms. Kellerman was arrested for indecent exposure. But she later starred in several movies and ended up with a line of bathing suits named after her, which goes to show infamy sometimes pays.

In 1913, inspired by the introduction of women into Olympic swimming (and most likely Ms. Kellerman’s boldness), designer Carl Jantzen introduced the first functional two-piece swimsuit. By the early 1920s almost every bathing beauty could be seen at the beach in a long top worn over shorts. Decency prevailed, however. The body was covered from the neck to almost the knees and matching stockings were part of the ensemble

1910 swimming costumes

 In 1921, Jantzen Knitting Mills introduced the first one-piece ‘elastic’ suit, launching the wool knit bathing suit for men and women that would be around for 15 years. Swimsuit maker Mabs of Hollywood created a more shapely look for women in the mid 1930s with Lastex, a satin finish elastic and silk fabric used for girdles.

Jean Harlow 1930s
 By the early 1940s the two-piece swimsuit that allowed a peek at the midriff was stepping out onto American beaches from sea to shining sea. Leading the parade were Hollywood stars such as Esther Williams, Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth.

1940s two-piece swimsuit
No sooner had the sight of a little skin become the norm than there was a revolution of unprecedented proportions in France. The bikini was unveiled in Paris on July 5, 1946 by French engineer Louis Réard and designer Jacques Heim. When this itsy bitsy garment was revealed – modeled by a nude dancer from the Casino de Paris because no model dared wear it – even Parisian eyebrows shot up. The designers well knew they had created something explosive and so named their creation after nuclear weapons tests at Bikini Atoll. 

Micheline Bernardini models the first modern bikini

But had Réard come up with something new? A mosaic mural at Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily shows women exercising in the 4th century AD. What they’re wearing looks a lot like a bikini to me.

In the 1950s, the bikini became less revealing with the bottom covering the navel. Modesty had returned. But it would be a mere two decades before the thong bikini took beaches by storm. American designer Rudi Gernreich has been credited with introducing the thong bikini in 1974, though some claim it first appeared on the beaches of Brazil in 1977. Wherever the credit lies, the thong isn’t new either. The fundoshi, a thong-style garment, has been worn by Japanese men for swimming for centuries. As I said in a previous post, what’s old is new again.

In 1990, the State of Florida told women to cover up, banning the thong bikini from state beaches. The ban is still in effect, but it only covers 30 miles – about 4% of the Florida coastline. The thong bikini covers about 2% of an average size woman's body.

 Sources: Wikipedia
Photo sources: Wikipedia,,,        


  1. And everything old is new again. :-) Interesting retrospective.

    1. Hi Yvonne, so nice to see you here! Thanks for visiting. Yes, the never ending circle of life (:

  2. This is decidedly a more energetic post than your previous edition regarding wedding finery. What strikes me most about bathing fashion is how slowly it has evolved (revolved?). I suppose the requirements being minimal, fewer deviations are possible. The lead weights in the hem was a clever idea --- I'd put it right up there with the plastic bag Halloween mask.

  3. Makes one think, looking back at how swimming suits have evolved. I daresay we will soon be back to the full cover-up as we become more wary of the effects of the sun. I am getting my knitting needles out and beginning from the ankle up... Great post JP :-)

    1. Interesting to watch how things come full circle, though don't know if I can bring myself to get covered all the way to the ankles, Deborah (: Thanks for stopping by. Always good to see you.

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  5. Hi, nice to meet you! Very interesting blog you have here. I found you through one of the writer's groups on LinkedIn.


    1. Nice to meet you too, Kitty! Thanks for visiting - and following - and for the compliment. Have no idea whether you're able to see follow up comments, but if you can, which Linkedin writers group? Haven't been on the Linkedin groups much lately so I'm kind of not in the loop.

  6. I couldn't believe how interesting I found this post -I wouldn't have thought the subject matter would grip me, but it really did. I can remember having a wool Jantzen suit in the early 60's . Green wool!- I guess Uk waters are rather chilly!
    Very glad to have connected with you.

    1. Thanks for visiting, A.K. Hope to keep you entertained (:

  7. I Love Posts Like These! It is such fun to see history through the eyes of fashion :)
    Thanks for finding me on FB.
    M.C.V. EGAN

    1. And thanks for stopping by and following. Saw your follow on Networked Blogs, but haven't a clue how to connect with anyone there - so glad you left this comment. It's great to meet another Florida writer. Will visit your website this afternoon.

  8. Very interesting.
    I found you in LinkedIn and I'm following you now. I have three blogs, if you'd like to check them out:,,


    1. Hi Ingrid, glad you tracked me down. I'd certainly love to check out your blogs, and will. Thanks again for visiting - and following!

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