The Maillot: A Rebel With a Cause

While the name may be unfamiliar to you, you’ve no doubt seen the maillot many times and perhaps even worn one yourself at the beach or pool. “Maillot” is, in fact, the original French term for what we know today as a one-piece swimsuit. The name isn’t the only thing to have changed, however. From shape to style variations, this garment has evolved countless times over the decades since its inception.

The Birth of the Maillot

The one-piece swimsuit made its first appearance — as popular fashion styles often do — when someone broke the rules. In 1908, champion swimmer and future vaudeville star Annette Kellerman decided to flout convention by appearing on a public beach in a form-fitting one-piece suit that exposed her arms, legs and neck. She was promptly arrested for indecent exposure.

Thanks to Kellerman’s daring, in the aftermath of World War I, the maillot became a legitimate option for women and a welcome alternative to the voluminous swimwear usually worn. This original maillot was sleeveless with attached long shorts, as popularized by the “Diving Girl” advertising icon of the Oregon swimwear powerhouse, Jantzen.

Changing Times, Changing Tan Lines

Though the arrival of two-piece swimsuits and the 1946 bikini stole some of the maillot’s popularity, it has nonetheless remained a swimwear staple. The original long shorts were gradually phased out and replaced by the high-cut leg lines we see today. Meanwhile, the development of a stretchy, more elastic fabric in the 1930s gave the suit a tight-fitting look that’s still in vogue.  

Nowadays, we see the maillot in an endless variety of shapes and styles, as consumer preferences continue to evolve. Today, maillots can have plunging or halter necklines. Some even have criss-cross lacing in the front or back. Whether worn in the water or for sunbathing ashore, this wonderful swimsuit has shown itself to be functional, flattering, and interesting in its every iteration.