Appreciate Your Bikini: A Brief History Of Women’s Swimwear

Published May 30, 2015
Updated May 28, 2015
History of Women's Swimwear Styles

Source: On Board

As the summer heat hits full blast, people everywhere are flocking to the water. While the tendency to hit the waves when the going gets hot is not unique to a given time or people, what we wear (or don’t!) certainly is. From full-on dresses to itsy-bitsy bikinis–plus weird contraptions called bathing machines–you’ll love this history of women’s swimwear.

Victorian Bathing Dresses

Source: Wikimedia

The history of women’s swimwear begins with a simple outfit known as the birthday suit. All jokes aside, up until the 19th century people frequently bathed nude. And while women were known to cover themselves with clothing that resembles our modern day bikini, the outfits weren’t for swimming. In fact, swimsuits were invented in the mid 1800s. Their creation came out of necessity; recent improvements in railroad systems and other transportation methods had finally made swimming and going to the beach a recreational activity.

1876 Swimwear

Source: Photo Sleuth

If you saw a picture of swimsuit-clad women in the second half of the 19th century, you’d have a hard time recognizing their outfits as swimwear. The times called for swimsuits that more closely resembled a belted dress over long bloomers (aka baggy pants). While they weren’t aesthetically appealing, the swimwear fulfilled its primary purpose: to conceal a woman’s body.

History of Women's Swimwear

An example of swimwear from the late 1800s. Source: Pinterest

Back in those days, women were compelled to conceal their bodies so as to be “modest.” For that reason, the top portion of the swimsuit hung low like a dress to hide the woman’s figure. These suits were made from heavy flannel fabric that was both opaque and sturdy enough to not rise with the water. At some sites, 19th-century women also had the luxury of using a bathing machine. These small, wheeled structures were dragged into shallow waters so a Victorian lady could prance around the ocean in complete privacy.

1800s Swimwear

Source: Pinterest

Kiri Picone
Bay Area transplant Kiri Picone is a writer and marketer who loves bizarre news and the color purple.
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