Bathing Suit: From the Modest to the Risqué and Back Again

While today it may seem like swimming and specialized clothing go hand-in-hand, this wasn’t always the case. In fact, for most of human history, people simply swam in the nude. In the 18th century, both recreational swimming and Western sensibilities about modesty were on the rise. The combination sparked the first women’s bathing suit.

Take a look at how swimwear has come to represent first modesty then sexiness before returning to a more practical variety. 

First Bathing Suits Covered Everything

In the early 1800s, “bathing” (recreational time in the water) became a popular pastime. However, Victorian modesty dictated women cover up. They also wanted to protect their skin from tanning. The first bathing suits were long-sleeved, full-skirted garments that had weighted hemlines to keep them from floating up. 

While these suits may have met the needs of modesty and sun protection, they were very cumbersome and not very useful for athletes. Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer, wanted to wear something allowing a full range of motion. In 1907, she was arrested for indecency when she wore a short-sleeved, scoop-necked suit. She was still fully covered. The outfit even had shorts. However, the fitted silhouette was much more revealing than the ballooning suits that were popular at the time. Her arrest did not deter other women from (literally) following suit. 

Bikinis Cause a Stir 

In the 1940s, there was a new recreational pastime that took place on the beach: sunbathing. Gone were the days or protecting pale skin. Tans were all the rage, and women were constantly adjusting the straps and legs of their bathing suits in an attempt to get the most even tan without lines. This led to a pair of similarly-constructed versions of the bathing suit to come out within weeks of each other. Designers Jacques Heim and Louis Reard both release two-piece designs in the summer of 1946. Reard would name his design after the U.S. atomic bomb test, dubbing his new suit a “bikini.” 

The bikini started out as scandalous, but as they say in show biz, “there’s no such thing as bad press.” Every headline featuring the scandal of a young starlet wearing a bikini further entrenched its desirability. This was certainly the case when then-new actress Brigitte Bardot wore one in 1953. By 1960, the song “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” was filling the airwaves. 

Modern Bathing Suits are About Options

While the bikini was all the rage for a while, swimwear eventually became more practical again. In the 1990s, the Miraclesuit and its slimming features refocus attention on one-piece suits. Meanwhile, modern options come in all shapes and sizes. From full coverage swimwear that meets strict religious modesty requirements to tiny bikinis that barely cover anything, women are free today to dress in whatever provides them the most comfort.