Poscard circa 1910.

Poscard circa 1910.

As Michalina wrote in an earlier post, it’s the time of year where we can’t move for bikini articles, and her blog about the famous Bikini Girls Mosaic last week got me thinking. While the ladies in Sicily’s Roman mosaic are more ready for a workout than to lounge by the pool, what women have worn to the beach throughout history is a fascinating topic that definitely puts my struggle to find a swimsuit into perspective.

Classical Roman murals depict swimming naked, and throughout the middle ages swimming was discouraged, so we know little about what was worn for outdoor bathing in the West until the 1800s. With the expansion of the railways in the 19th century, beaches became more accessible and even more popular – and of course the perfect outfit was a necessity. Modesty and coverage from the sun were twin priorities which meant that the ideal fashionable attire for a day at the beach could include a full length white gown over muslin trousers, a heavy tasselled scarf and pale kid gloves. By the middle of the 19th century, long bloomers gave a little more flexibility and movement, but heavy flannel fabrics (designed to keep wearers warm in cold water) and knee length dresses still weighed women down. In contrast men regularly bathed nude until 1860, when short red and white striped drawers were the typical male swimming costume.

At the turn of the century hemlines started to rise: in the 1890s, dresses were only to the knee, one pieces became popular, and by 1910 bathing suits shed their yards and yards of fabric and began to expose the female figure. Sleeves started to vanish and bottoms became shorter. Sailor inspired styles were in vogue, with nautically themed colour palates and frilly collars. These changes were not simply aesthetic, but represent women becoming more active in the water and swimming rather than bathing.

In the early 1900s, the entrance of women into swimming as a competitive sport had a key influence of the design of women’s beach clothing, and a one piece, knitted, close fitting swimming costume battled with the less flexible and mobile bathing costume which was only really fit for dry land. This kind was seen as suited more for the competitive swimmer than the fashionable lady, and magazines like Harper’s Bazar and Vogue refused to acknowledge its existence. In a society where untanned skin was still the ideal and swimming was seen as too a strenuous activity for a woman to engage in, the plain, utilitarian swimming suit exposed a woman’s body to the elements, allowed her to engage in in physical exercise and complimented the image of the newly emancipated modern woman.

By 1930 the swimsuit had evolved into a form we can recognise today. Different fabrics – Lastex, (a stretchy yarn made with a core of rubber), cotton, ginghams and chambrays and wools drastically improved fit and kept women either warm or cool on the beach. In the forties, the two piece emerged, and suits were structurally sculptured to stay put on a woman’s body whether sunning or swimming. Debates about the bikini raged after its creation and it was often seen as a scandalous garment. Today we’re more encouraged to worry about how to find the most flattering swimsuit or which shape would suit us best, but the swimsuits history as a garment that expresses female athletic freedoms deserved to be remembered.

-Aoife Kurta
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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