Surprising history of women's bathing suits
With summer just beginning, you’re sure to be hitting the beach or pool. Perhaps with the new season you’re updating your swimsuit collection. If that’s the case, you might be looking at two-piece bikinis, even though you have the luxury to choose from a wide variety of designs and styles. However, this hasn’t always been the case.
Think back to the age of the bourgeoisie and Marie Antoinette. Women in this day and age were required to wear long-sleeved full dresses covering them neck to toe, also known as bathing gowns, bonnets with a face shade, and gloves. They even carried parasols with them. Though vacations to the beach were not quite yet popular, women who did enjoy the salty air and sand between their toes aimed to remain pale, as this indicated that they did not work outdoors in the fields, marking their wealth.
It wasn’t until the early 19th century when women’s swimwear began to evolve. Though women were still expected to wear these bathing gowns, the materials transitioned from opaque-all-over to gauze or muslin sleeves. Oh how scandalous, the skin on the arms can be seen. A wife was still her husband’s property at this time, and she was merely his accessory to improve his appearance. Perhaps these days men prefer a pair of nice cufflinks on their arm.
Fast-forward to the 1890s when knee length dresses became acceptable swimwear. Though stockings and lace-up slippers were still part of the uniform, the progressing societal values allowed for a shorter hem length. This change in beachwear came after the work of Amelia Bloomer, who made the argument and eventual acceptance for women to wear bloomers rather than dresses. Who knew that the daily wear of woman today was a battle for women not terribly long ago?
As American culture shifted, so did the swimsuits women sported. In the late 1800s into the early 1900s, wealth began to be associated with darker skin. If a woman’s family or husband had money, then they could afford vacation, so the tan skin of someone put on display their ability to take a luxurious beach vacation. Thus, the elastic swimsuit was born. Women even began swimming, a behavior even the most athletic woman would not previously participate in. The elastic nature of this one-piece suit was more form fitting and displayed a woman’s natural curves. The women’s swimwear business took off from here.
The most prominent and well-known advancement was the development of the two-piece bikini created by the French engineer Louis Réard in 1946. Named after the Bikini Atoll, an atomic bomb testing site, Réard actually dropped a cultural bomb on the world. This new, and quite risqué, swimwear was even banned in some European countries.
The bikini became more widely accepted and worn over time, though other styles have gone in and out of popularity. Recall Marilyn Monroe in her form fitting one-pieces and tankinis? What about the “itsy bitsy teenie wennie yellow polka dot bikini” craze? Brian Hyland’s top hit led to a brightly colored, string bikini mania. I don’t think Amelia Bloomer or Susan B. Anthony saw this in the future, but it was merely the efforts of these women that allowed for liberation and self-expression through swimwear.
As women of today, we are lucky to have the opportunity to choose not just our bathing suits, but also our everyday apparel. So next time you’re donning your favorite bikini, remember the fight it took for you to have the freedom to parade around in the beachwear that you do.