Its evolution is as diverse as swimsuits themselves!
If you found the evolution of lingerie in Sirena Magazine interesting, you cannot miss these curious facts about the evolution of the swimsuit. Several everyday aspects influenced this evolution. Let’s explore some of them.
The term “bathing suit” comes from the name of the English city Bath
The term “bathing suit”, dates back to the 18th century and refers to the set of clothing that was used at that time to enter the hot springs of Bath, a city in Somerset, England. Bath was designated by UNESCO in 1987 as a World Heritage Site and in 2021 as one of the Great Spa Towns of Europe and its name refers to the immersion of a body in water.
When these baths were built by the Romans, they were public and clothing was not worn to enter the water. After the fall of the roman empire, the baths fell into disuse and were rediscovered, remodeled and turned into a resort in the 18th century. Its use then was exclusive and, in keeping with the rigors of the time, clothing was required to enter the water. These bathing suits, made with natural fibers, consisted of various pieces, including hair covering and footwear, and covered most of the body to maintain modesty. To prevent them from rising up in the water and exposing women, weights were placed on the hems. These bathing suits were bulky and very heavy when wet.
In the 19th century, bathing suits lost some volume and became shorter, leaving more skin exposed.Although the cream bathing suit was bulky and covered basically the entire woman’s body, the piece was less bulky than those worn in the 18th century. The black suit is, in turn, shorter, and less bulky than the cream suit and left part of the arms and legs uncovered.
Until the early 20th century, boot-type shoes, with knee-high socks, were part of the bathing suit outfit because being barefoot on the beach was not considered appropriate.
From bathing suit to swimsuit
As swimming became a sport during the 19th century, more people learned to swim and visited beaches, lakes and swimming pools. This caused the clothing to shift gradually from bathing suits to swimming suits. In order to be used for swimming, bathing suits needed to be more comfortable and functional and for this they had to lose a lot of volume, length and weight.
Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer, pioneered female swimming in the early 20th century as well as the use of more comfortable and functional swimsuits. In 1907, Annette was arrested for indecent exposure on a beach in Boston, Massachusetts for using a tight-fitting one-piece pantsuit that covered half of her thighs and exposed part of her arms, neck and legs.
Fig. 3: Annette Kellerman
The length and neckline of the swimsuit was regulated by law
In the 1910s, bathing suits became shorter and tighter. By the 1920s, shorter swimsuits began to be seen, with more pronounced armholes and more striking colors. Since maintaining decorum and modesty was necessary, not every swimsuit style was allowed, and there were rules to be followed. To enforce these rules, there were officials in the beaches with tape measures verifying that the established requirements were met.
By the late 1920s and early 1930s, bathing suits were shorter, had straps and low backs, and were made with more comfortable and less heavy materials.
Fig 4: Police measuring the length of a women’s swimsuit at the beach, Washington DC, 1922. Picture from Unsplash
Newspapers, beauty pageants, magazines, movies and television were key in the evolution of the swimsuit in the 20th century.
As with underwear, social changes, technological advancement, the development of synthetic materials, and the struggles for women’s rights influenced the evolution of the swimsuit. But, unlike underwear, the swimsuit was designed as clothing to be exposed to public view, and its evolution was marked by controversy. Many thought it was indecent to wear such clothes in public. Newspapers, beauty pageants, magazines, movies, and television all played an important role in influencing a shift in thinking about swimwear.
Newspapers were the first to publish propaganda with women wearing swimsuits. Later, the newspapers began to hold beauty contests in their editions by presenting photos of women posing in swimsuits for the readers to select a winner. From here, the beauty contests emerged. “The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America” (later shortened to “Miss America”) was the first formal beauty pageant and was held in 1921 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The event intended to expand tourism in the Atlantic City area after Labor Day weekend. The dress code in the activity for both contestants and spectators was to wear a swimsuit. The participants modeled swimsuits and the winner received her prize in her swimsuit.
Over time, other beauty contests emerged that, as part of their appeal, featured the contestants modeling swimsuits. In turn, the controversy over the use of the swimsuit increased since some considered it indecent and others criticized women being treated as if they were an object.
Later in the 20th century, photos of women in swimsuits began to appear on the covers of magazines. Also, actresses wore swimsuits in movies and TV shows. This influenced the demand for this type of clothing and, eventually, the swimsuit became an essential part of a woman’s wardrobe.
I hope these interesting facts have left you curious to learn more about the swimsuit. If you are interested in learning more, I invite you to visit the links to the references used to prepare this article.