Have you worn your bathing suit this summer?

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In the history of bathing suit fashion, achieving the right balance of modesty, material, and motion has been a major challenge. Not to mention sex appeal.


Maybe you’d prefer one of these styles from the past…


Many of us without “perfect bodies” have experienced some degree of anxiety while parading — or should I say skulking — from the relative safety of lying on a beach blanket to the exposure one must endure while entering the water. Some of us might go for this crinoline bathing suit style depicted in a cartoon from 1865.

Crinoline as solution for bathing suit modesty -- 1858

Crinoline as solution for bathing suit modesty — 1858


Back in the 18th century, bathing suits were meant more for wading than actual swimming. A woman might enjoy a refreshing dip while wearing a flannel dress over trousers, and a pair of shoes. Weights might be sewn into the hem to keep her skirt from floating up. Men had it somewhat better in body-fitting wool suits with long legs and sleeves. But the need to apply sunscreen was a long way off.
Bathing Dresses 1858

Bathing Dresses 1858


Bathing Machines, Punch Magazine 1880

Bathing Machines, Punch Magazine 1880

Even though all this clothing pretty much covered the body as much as anything worn on the streets, people also felt the need to use “bathing machines” that helped transport them from sand to shore. These were never popular in the United States, but were commonly used in Europe. A horse would haul a little wood shed out to the shore where you could change into your swimsuit and descend into the water. Men swam in one area and women swam in another.


After the expansion of railroads in the 1800s, it became possible for people to visit sea side beaches in droves. This led to a need for more functional bathing suits.


Romance on the Beach 1898

Romance on the Beach 1898


Men’s bathing suits had also crept up in length, and it was okay to show arms without offending.

By the early years of the 1900s, the trousers in women’s suits were shortened to bloomers, the dresses became tunic length, long sleeves turned into cap sleeves, and wool stockings covered the legs. Bathing caps were recommended to protect the fashionably long tresses from the damage of salt, sea and sun. But, since most suits were still made of flannel or even wool, the heavy weight of all that clothing was more likely to help a woman sink rather than swim.
Wringing out the Bathing Suit

Wringing out the Bathing Suit

In the 1920s, women reached parity on the beach as well as in the voting booth. One-piece, wool jersey, sleeveless tanks suits hit the leg at mid-thigh. Stockings and shoes were no longer required. Women could finally float and vote.


All this flaunting of skin caused a lot of anxiety, so many beaches established laws restricting how much could be shown. If a guy dared to expose his hairy chest, he risked arrest for indecent exposure. And the length of a woman’s bloomers was carefully monitored in case she showed too much leg.


Beach Life Magazine 1938

Beach Life Magazine 1938

Cotton blends finally replaced scratchy wool in the 1930s. Men exposed their hairy chests without raising anyone’s eyebrows. Women had to begin worrying about flabby thighs. They might even show some midriff skin as two-piece bathing suits began to appear. Belly-buttons still offended any decent person’s sense of morality, however, so bottoms had high waists. Tops still provided a decent amount of coverage and support to lift any breasts in danger of sagging.



World War II spurred advances in

Fabrics such as rayon, latex, ruched waffle nylon, and polyesters were lighter weight and more flexible than ever.

These new synthetics inspired fashions that showed off the natural lines of the body. However, women were still reminded that nature could always be improved by features like control top bottoms to flatten the belly, and padded bra cups to augment the chest.

Now that bathing suits could be made using these great new stretchy, lightweight, comfortable fabrics, designers fashioned swimwear that hardly required them to use any of it. The bikini, named after an island where the U.S. tested the atomic bomb, made its first appearance in 1946.

In the 1950s, conservative women could still look fashionable in a one-piece suit; the more daring could choose a two-piece. But the sexual revolution — and beach party movies with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello — encouraged everyone to let it all hang out.
Annette and Frankie 1965

Annette and Frankie 1965

Life Magazine 1965

Life Magazine 1965

By the 60s, the bikini prevailed. Men could show themselves off in their “Speedos.”

Obsessions with fitness and aerobics in the in the 70s and 80s led to bottoms with high thigh lines, thongs, and bikini-string tops. Or was it the other way around?

By the 1990s, the popularization of stripper fashion and Brazilian waxing inspired G-string bottoms and implant-flaunting tops.



This iconic photograph of a topless swimsuit by Rudy Gernreich was modeled by Peggy Moffit in 1964. In interviews, he said it was hard to come up with the design with just the trunks. Finally he realized the straps were needed to make it work. (As Tim Gunn would say.) And earlier attempts had the waist band too low.

Rudy Gernreich’s topless bathing suit was not originally meant to be worn. He said that he put it out there more as a statement — as a prediction for the future. Moffit’s husband photographed her wearing it, but she didn’t model the suit on a runway. Too much realism and not enough illusion, she explained.

People who saw the photograph found it shocking and fascinating and due to demand, it did end up being manufactured. Evidently some women thought it provided enough illusion.

So why not just wear your bikini bottom and throw out the top? “If a woman wants to appear naked,” Gernreich said, “she wants to appear in something designed for that purpose.”

As for his prediction? Topless bathing suits have not, to date, taken off, so to speak. I can think of different reasons why: women want their suits to be differentiated from men’s; it would be too bouncy to run around like that; no way to disguise or augment bust size, a sunburn on the nipple area would not be pleasant — not to mention skin cancer…

But I suspect women could be convinced by the fashion world to wear — or not wear — anything. The bottom line, so to speak, is that it’s not good business to proclaim that clothing you want to be selling has gone out of style. The next step would be nude bathing, and what money could be made from that? Instead, the industry has gone in the direction of “mix and match,” charging separately for tops and bottoms, and undoubtedly raising profit margins.

The latest advances in swimwear — or marketing ploys, depending on how you look at it — involve suits “engineered” for movement and speed. In some cases this has gone to the extent that the suit would only be relevant to professional athletes competing in the Olympics.

You also see some marketing towards different age groups and body sizes. Well, maybe not age so much. Hard to find a middle-aged swimsuit model, much less an elderly one.


On the plus side, so to speak, suits in the 2000s come in every shape, style and modesty level. These offer a full array of options for everyone from young and nubile nymphs to post-menopausal women with stretch marks and saggy boobs.

Now that, I’d have to say, is progress.