Some of the first swimsuits looked more like your grandmother’s favorite dress than the sophisticated swimwear of today. Bathing suits were made of wool until 1920, and it wasn’t until the mid-1900s that women even considered baring their bellies. Below is a history of swimwear through the ages.
Although men and women swam in the nude in ancient times, by the 18th century, that was no longer considered appropriate. Women at that time wore long dresses with weights in the hem that kept the dress modest, even while swimming. In the 19th century, many women wore stockings or tight trousers under their bathing gowns. At least they were protected from UV rays!
In the early 1900s, underwater ballerina Annette Kellerman shocked the public with her form-fitting suit that revealed her figure and had no sleeves.
By 1906, however, the Olympics helped swimsuit designers realize that women needed to move in order to swim. The hemlines rose, and the sleeves came off. Although swimsuits now allowed for more movement (and had less fabric to soak up water), they still had a skirt or shorts to cover the thighs. It was illegal for the hemlines to fall more than 6 inches from the knee.
Beginning in the 1930s, things started to get a little sexier. Off came the skirts at the bottom of the swimsuits, and a backless halter style became popular.
Although women were still wearing one-piece swimsuits with lower-cut, boy-short style leg openings in the 1940s, the bikini was launched in Paris in 1946. Although there were other two-piece swimsuits out there, designer Louis Reard’s version was teeny-weeny.
In the 1950s, some women were venturing into two-piece swimwear styles, but they were sporty and generously cut.
The culture drastically shifted in the 1960s, and so did the swimsuit. Some women weren’t concerned with conservative swimwear silhouettes anymore. Bikinis were getting skimpier, and women were showing more skin.
In the 1970s, anything was possible. Farrah Fawcett wore a simple, rust-colored one-piece swimsuit for this famous poster, and she blew people away.
As the decades progressed, so did bathing suit styles. The 1980s saw high-cut leg openings and lots of neon.
This style continued through the 90s, especially with Baywatch making the sporty red suit popular. But the real innovation was the tankini, which was released for the first time by the end of the decade.
Since 2000, swimsuit style has gone all over the place. Retro looks and modern fabrics have swarmed the runway. Sun protective clothing has changed the face of beachwear. UV swimwear is made from fabric that contains protection to keep the sun’s harmful rays from damaging the skin. Cabana Life’s swimsuits with 50+ UV protection have all the style of contemporary fashion as well.