The Swimsuit: A History

In ART & FASHION, Commentary, HOME by Hannah Beer

So it’s that time of year again; the blossom is emerging and the dandelions have sprung, summer is inching ever closer. Maybe you’re putting the finishing touches to your dissertation or maybe you’ve landed your dream job. Either way I know you’re mentally planning your summer. Summer means lots of things, but for fashion it means the universal return of the epic swimsuit.

It’s easy to forget in our liberal 21st century that the swimsuit has acted as a liberation in clothing barometer throughout history. It is more than pure coincidence that the hourglass-corset costume returned after hardships of wartime. Women’s historical lifestyle changes and liberations have been reflected throughout the decades by the ever changing face of the swimsuit.

The swimsuit is a unique garment with many manifestations and we are lucky to have all its designs at our modern finger tips. Here’s a short timeline to some of the most iconic and inspirational designs of the 20th Century that may help you decide which shape to go for this coming summer.


11136362_10155416105880553_1143358762_oDuring the 1930s, the nation was in the throes of sporting madness. Europe’s elite would enjoy swimming, tennis, shooting, fishing, cycling and swimming. So French fashion designer Jean Patou set out to make sport fashionable. The 1930s were the heyday for seaside holidays, and seaside style consisted of shorts, halter neck tops, playsuits and beach pyjamas.

At first glance, the swimwear looks similar to what our female tennis players wear today with its skort (skirt and short). I personally think the swimwear in the 1930s, with its backless numbers cinched in at the waist, was very elegant. It was yet another platform in which femininity was being expressed.


11101391_10155416105835553_727464934_oThe 1940s saw equally elegant numbers emerge as well as the introduction of the bikini in 1946. The two piece suit (as seen in the far left photo featuring Ava Gardner) was born in the wartime years due to fabric-saving necessity. The golden rule had always been that the navel should always be covered, so when the bikini was launched in Paris it caused riots and worldwide controversy.


11126001_10155416105885553_1722488175_oThe 1950s was all about the hourglass shape. The pin-up style had taken over and with it came glamour. The sexiness of the swimsuit had developed since the 1940s by simply deepening the cleavage and creating strapless bustier tops. Even though the swimsuit had gained more sex appeal during this time there were still laws that governed how they were to be worn. The legline for instance had to remain firmly sliced across the upper thigh. This style suits all body types, and is famously (see Marilyn Monroe) perfect for curves.

1960s and 70s

11132254_10155416105915553_1051690350_oThe stiff morals of the 1950s were hanging by a thread, and by the mid 1960s experiments with shape, cut and fabric had brought the sixties into an era of its own. We saw crochet becoming a huge hit amongst beach goers as well as casual checked gingham influenced by the fabulous Brigitte Bardot. This continued right into the ‘70s. Swimwear began to take many different shapes, with designers creating fantasy like designs – who can forget the space age looks of the sixties with it’s metallic bikinis.


cq5dam.web.1920.1280The 1980s were the ‘let’s get physical’ age where fashion had a love affair with the athletic and muscular female form. The most iconic swimsuit to come out of this decade was of course the red Baywatch bonanza, as seen time and time again on Pamela Anderson. The bottoms were notoriously skimpy and cut high to elongate the legs and we saw the thong being socially acceptable on beaches all around the world. The 80s saw the introduction of brilliant shades or printed designs like animal-skin patterns. So if you’re feeling bold enough to get waxed within an inch of your life this summer, this 80s look will be the one for you.


11137810_10155416105615553_1107923174_oIt was all about clean lines and minimalism in the 1990s and Calvin Klein and Donna Karen were at the forefront of this trend. Swimwear in this era went by the ethos ‘less is more’, and was more subtly sexy than its predecessor. Also let’s not forget that the 1990s was the rave era, holiday destinations like Ibiza were the places to be so swimwear reflected this colourful hippy chic.

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You may not be feeling entirely swimsuit-ready yet, but that’s not to stop you flicking back through the archives for some inspiration. More than anything, it’s one of the more fun ways to procrastinate finishing that dissertation…

Charlotte May Bulmer

Charlotte May Bulmer is a journalism graduate defined by her senses. The smell of linen, cashmere, sandlewood (and men!) – she’ll follow these. When it comes to taste, it’s all about pad thai. She even has a sense of awareness in her sleep – at times she can lucid dream. Oh, and sight-wise? Give her a glittery toilet seat and she’s yours.

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(Images sourced from: here)