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

Published May 30, 2015
Updated October 30, 2019

Be it bathing machines, the swimsuit police or the full-on dresses that Victorians wore to the beach, the history of women's swimwear will blow your mind.

History of Women's Swimwear Styles

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.

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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.

Women's Swimwear In 1876

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

Only at the turn of the century, when swimming became an intercollegiate and Olympic sport, did people realize that the current swimwear lineup had been designed without functionality in mind. As the sport grew, swimsuits became more streamlined and less heavy, paving the way for styles to come. At this point in the history of women’s swimwear, women often accessorized with soft bathing slippers that provided added protection against rough shores.

British Swim Team In 1912

The British Women’s Swim Team at the 1912 Olympics.

Streamlined History of Women's Swimwear

More streamlined, athletic swimwear from the early 1900s. Source: Afreecan Image

By 1910, women’s swimwear was less restrictive and heavy. Women exposed their arms, hemlines crept up to the mid-thigh and designers used less fabric to conceal a girl’s figure. As the 1920s rolled around, the swimsuits got smaller, and the demand for them grew larger. Hollywood and Vogue both popularized the idea of swimwear being sexy and glam, a trend that would persist in the decades to come.

History of Swimwear

When this picture was taken in 1922, women were subjected to “swimsuit police” who literally measured the length of their swimwear. Source: Huffington Post

While two-piece suits were common in the years leading up to World War II, they usually covered a woman’s navel and left only a bit of midriff visible. In 1946, French designer Louis Reard introduced the world to the first modern bikini, featuring significantly less fabric than its predecessors.

Its name has roots in the war: Reard was inspired to name his two-piece after a newsworthy US atomic test with the name Bikini Atoll. The new design was so risqué that the designer had to hire Micheline Bernardini, a Parisian showgirl, to model it.

World's First Bikini

Micheline Bernardini modeling the world’s first bikini. Source: NY Daily News

1960s Swimwear Fashion

Source: Pinterest

While changes to future generations of swimwear were mostly aesthetic in nature, a few iconic swim styles stood out and captivated the country. Take, for instance the red one-piece that stars like Pamela Anderson and Carmen Electra donned for Baywatch.

As women’s swimwear has expanded to include a variety of styles, so too has it introduced new, accompanying industries. One of which is swimsuit photography, which got its start in the middle of the 20th century and has since catapulted into popularity. And while we may not always appreciate the “openness” that modern swimwear has introduced, at least the bathing machine is history.

History of Women's Swimwear Baywatch

Source: PixShark

Tyra Banks History of Women's Swimwear

Tyra Banks was one of the most iconic swimsuit models around the turn of the 21st century.

Kiri Picone
Kiri Picone holds a B.A. in English and creative writing from Pepperdine University and has been writing for various digital publishers for more than 10 years.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Picone, Kiri. "Appreciate Your Bikini: A Brief History Of Women’s Swimwear.", May 30, 2015, Accessed May 23, 2024.