Evolution of the Swimsuit

By COSI Hotels Posted on 07 Sep 20


The one item you have to pack for any beach holiday is the swimsuit, but although today’s swimming attire might not take up much room in your suitcase, it certainly hasn’t always been this way. The modern bikini or pair of speedos has evolved over time from far bigger and baggier beginnings.


Evolution of the Swimsuit

The First Swimsuits

If we show you what a swimsuit used to look like back in the 19th century, you would barely recognise it as a swimsuit at all, because its principal purpose appeared to be to hide as much of the body as possible, sometimes with more than one layer. The height of fashion at the time consisted of bloomers and black stockings… shocking!

The Swimsuit Goes Olympic

It was only in the early twentieth century, when swimming became an intercollegiate and Olympic sport, that people finally came to realise that the current swimwear lineup had not been designed with functionality in mind. As swimming became more popular as a sporting pursuit, swimsuits became much more streamlined and lightweight, paving the way for styles to come.

At this point in the history of women’s swimwear, women would often accessorise with soft bathing slippers that offered greater comfort on stony beaches.

Swimsuit Police

The trend for less concealing swimwear was evidently causing alarm in the United States by the 1920s, as you could be arrested if you were caught wearing a swimsuit deemed to be too short, or if you were seen in your swimsuit in the public domain.

Two Pieces

It was the 1930s when the world became accustomed to two-piece swimsuits, although the first such two-piece creations allowed very little skin to be shown, extending at least beyond the navel. At the time, Hollywood was not permitted to show the female navel on screen, so to see one on the beach would have been scandalous. It was shocking enough that some of the latest designs did away with the long sleeves.

The First Bikini

It can be argued that the bikini dates back to the Roman era, as illustrations of women wearing unmistakably similar designs have been found at a number of Roman sites, most notably Villa Romana del Casale. However, the invention of the modern bikini is credited to a French mechanical engineer, Louis Reard, who noticed the ladies on the beaches of the French Riviera rolling down the material of their swimsuits to get a better tan. To a man with an engineering background the solution was simple – make the things smaller in the first place.

Reard was not quite the first to have the idea of going minimalist, however. Professional designer Jacques Heim had the initial idea in May 1946. His ‘atome’ swimsuit almost revealed the navel, and was named after the smallest thing known to man. Reard, though, went further, revealing his even smaller creation shortly after Heim, just as Bikini Atoll hit the news as an atomic test site. Reard named his own design ‘bikini’, linking its invention to the momentous events in the Pacific Ocean.

Bikinis Need Bikini Models

Finding models willing to wear the new suit was a challenge; the only volunteer prepared to help out Reard was Parisian showgirl Micheline Bernardini, who was accustomed to appearing on stage in even less, and thus became the first bikini model.

The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is well-known now, but its first issue came in 1964 when Babette March was featured on the front cover in a white bikini, just two years after Playboy had shown a bikini for the first time on its front cover.

Today’s Swimsuits

As the world moves on, it seems that there are no limits to design and the human imagination. From the respectable to the ridiculous we have seen the world’s first burkini, and thanks to Borat, the mankini. One thing is for sure though – swimsuits have always been a product of their time, yet always seem to be ahead of the curve when it comes to changing social trends. If you want to know what the world has in store for us next, check which way swimwear is heading.