Now that summer weather has finally draped itself across the nation, bathing suit season is upon us as well. The bathing suit, which brings many to grumble when the temperature rises, has an interesting and complex history that informs designs today. From bikinis to one-pieces to full-coverage suits, all of today’s styles have their roots in the past.
In the Beginning
The history of bathing suits goes back as far as human recorded history. Ancient art depicts fully nude bathers of both genders gathered in Roman baths, and nude bathing remains a part of our culture even today. But clothed bathing was also shown in artwork of the past, including depictions of Greeks wearing what we would call bikinis today. These images are of scantily clad Greek women who have covered their breasts and hips with fabric of some kind, creating a style adored by many today.
Fully clothed bathing has strong roots in Europe, where standards of modesty were established centuries ago. At bathhouses, women and men were typically segregated, with women choosing to cover themselves even among their female counterparts. Dresses with full skirts were common, the hems of which often contained weights to keep the skirt from billowing up in the water. Women would also wear stockings or bloomers to cover their legs as well. Particularly during the Victorian Era, even the female ankle was to be hidden at all times. This trend carried through to bathing dresses.
At the Beach
During the Victorian Era of the mid-1800s, however, travel to the beach grew as a form of relaxation. Women and men remained separate, with women sometimes arriving in the water by horse-drawn carriage. This allowed women to move directly from the carriage to the water, minimizing their exposure. But swim dresses at that time were typically constructed from wool, which when wet would weigh a woman down, effectively preventing her from doing little more than soaking. The soaked woolen dress also clung to the body, revealing more than the prudish Victorians usually chose to reveal.
Turn of the Century
As the twentieth century dawned, coed bathing became acceptable again, with women and men alike flocking to beaches and parading in the sunshine. Around this time, bold bathers began pushing the boundaries. The first recorded violation occurred in 1907 when a woman was arrested on a Boston-area beach for wearing a one-piece suit similar to those worn today. Her arrest speaks to the conservative nature of law at the time and also to the more rebellious nature of people at that time.
The Age of Flappers
While the first elastic-based bathing suit was crafted in 1921, the wearing of wool suits continued for nearly two decades. That said, beginning in the 1920s, bathing suits began getting smaller. The 1930s saw the rise of stretchy suits made from a fabric called Lastex. These suits were popularized by headline-makers of the day, and woolen suits fell out of favor.
Two-piece suits rose to prominence beginning in the 1940s and were snatched up by women across the nation. Interestingly, the War played a role in the growth of bikinis, which were partly a response to a law that called for the 10% reduction of material in female bathing suits as part of the war effort.
Today, bathing suits range from full coverage burka-kinis to skimpy thongs, but all have their roots in the past.