The Evolution Of The Swimsuit

 In Back In The Day, Coastal Life, OBX Community


With sun-kissed summer days nearly within reach, we decided to take a look at the history of swimwear fashion. From modesty to function and from wartime rations to public opinion, many circumstances influenced the transformation of the swimsuit.

Late 1800s to Early 1900s


swimsuits outer banks nc - Bathing Machines

“Bathing Machines” allowed swimmers a private space for changing and a quick entry into the surf.

Most sunbathers and surfers today would not see the resemblance between the present day swimsuit and the full coverage dresses of the late Victorian era. Women during this time were not supposed to be too revealing to avoid giving the wrong impression, so they opted for almost no sun exposure. They donned knee-length dresses with bloomers or heavy, dark stockings underneath, while men wore swimsuits that completely covered their chests. The majority of swimming garments were made of wool, and the emphasis was on modesty over style.

swimsuits outer banks nc - Annette Kellerman

Annette Kellerman poses in the formfitting swimsuit that led to her arrest for indecent exposure.

Changing rooms on wheels, known as bathing machines, were a common sight at the beach and considered essential for women intending to swim. Women would change into their bathing costumes, and then horses would pull the quasi-carriages to the water so swimmers could get into the ocean as quickly as possible. The bathing gowns were weighted so they would not rise up in the water. 

As the years passed, the dresses eventually became tunics covering shorts. This was the start of lighter, more revealing swimsuits; however, modesty was still of the utmost importance. Australian swimmer and performer Annette Kellerman was famously arrested in 1907 for indecent exposure. She was wearing a one-piece suit that was too formfitting and showed her bare arms and tightly clad legs.  


swimsuits outer banks nc - Suit Measuring

A policeman measures the distance between a woman’s knee and her bathing suit to ensure that she is abiding by the law. If the distance exceeded six inches, the woman would have been charged or asked to leave the beach.

After the first “Bathing Suit Day” was held in Madison Square Garden in 1916, swimsuits entered the world of fashion and were a common sight in beauty pageants. Suits were primarily made of a wool-knit blend that allowed for a closer fit than all-wool. Women began wearing sleeveless tank suits by the 1920s, but were still aware of coverage as there was a law that stated swimsuits could not be more than six inches above the knee. Policemen would actually measure a woman’s bathing suit on the beach if they thought she was breaking the law.

By the mid-1930s, women’s and men’s bathing suits took on a similar appearance in shape and cut. California swimsuit maker Mabs of Hollywood incorporated Lastex, a woven elastic and silk material with a satin finish, into his pieces. The more elastic materials meant less fabric, and it was finally appropriate to show full leg and back. Men’s swimwear was slower to change in style with suits that still covered the chest; however, the guys did opt for shorter trunks. The indecency of navel exposure was influenced by the Hollywood Hays Code, which prohibited belly buttons from being shown on movie screens.


1940s – 1950s

The 1940s brought tighter fabrics and higher cuts to reveal the full leg as fashion pushed the boundaries of swimwear. Halter-top bathing suits resembling corsets became very popular among female movie stars. The swimsuit was no longer just about function.

swimsuits outer banks nc - Aycock Brown Collection

A group of women enjoys the Outer Banks beaches in the 1950s. Right: Brigitte Bardot popularized the bikini in the 1950s after she appeared in several French films clad in the risqué swimsuit.

When rationing began during World War II, the United States government passed legislation for a ten percent reduction in the fabric content of women’s swimwear. Bathing suits suddenly became two-pieced, although waistlines were kept very high. It is debatable whether those few inches of midriff helped with the war effort. 

The first bikini was invented in 1946 by French engineer and designer Louis Réard, but it was far from popular in Paris. None of
Réard’s traditional models would wear the scandalous suit, so he hired an exotic dancer to model his creation. It was named after Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific, where atomic bomb testing had recently taken place, to symbolize its impact on swimsuit fashion.

Suits_Bardot_Sunset-Boulevard-CorbisIn 1951, bikinis were banned from worldwide beauty pageants as well as beaches in Belgium, Italy, Spain, and Australia. The Vatican declared the two-piece suit sinful. Women who wore the bikini during this time were considered to have no tact or decency, so the one-piece reigned supreme.

It was not until 1956 that the bikini rose to acceptance in the public eye when French actress Brigitte Bardot appeared in film clad in the controversial bathing suit. American and European teens were suddenly wild for bikinis.

1960s – 1970s

swimsuits outer banks nc - Sport Illustrated

The first Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue was released in 1964 and featured model Babette March on the cover.

Ursula-Andress_Everett-CollectionModesty went out the window in the 1960s as more women fully embraced the bikini. Waistlines became lower to reach just below the navel; however, they were still cut to entirely cover a woman’s backside. The bikini was further propelled by actresses and models such as Marilyn Monroe, Swiss actress Ursula Andress in the James Bond hit Dr. No, and, of course, Bardot. Brian Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” topped music charts, and in 1964, Sports Illustrated published their first swimsuit edition. Women’s swimwear seemed limitless with new materials such as mesh, crochet, and spandex.

The sexual revolution brought on many standout designs in the 1970s intended to symbolize the power of women. Thong bathing suits appeared, followed quickly by the Tanga suit or Brazilian thong. A novelty of the decade was the tan-through swimsuit, meant to eliminate tan lines, but this trend disappeared as the issue of skin protection became a larger concern.


swimsuits outer banks nc - High Thigh

High-thigh swimsuits were all the rage in the 1980s and early 90s. Pamela Anderson’s Baywatch suit (right) embodied the iconic style.

A time of experimentation emerged in the postwar 1980s with a burst of neon colors and creative designs. Both bikinis and one-pieces began to feature a heightened leg line for more exposed hips. With higher thigh rise came suits with bottoms that fused to tops, although the remaining bare skin in the midriff made this style far from a one-piece.

pamela-anderson_Everett-CollectionThe V-kini and exposed hips stuck around for the 1990s, and Pamela Anderson famously wore the red Baywatch swimsuit in slow motion. High waists were still very popular on two-piece swimsuits. In the later part of the decade, the tankini was invented and resembled a combination of a tank top and bikini top. This created a more modest option for beachgoers that could still be mixed and matched with different bottoms. One-pieces with graphics also briefly took the spotlight. As for men, board shorts had existed since the 1970s but finally reached popularity through skater punk fashion.

The 2000s

Board-Shorts-Bikini_ss65851651Since the turn of the millennium, the world of women’s swimwear can only be described as an era of choices. When all of the creative and often outrageous trends of previous decades had settled, women could choose from any manner of remaining styles in one-pieces, bikinis, tankinis, and more. 

Bright colors, purposefully mismatched pieces, and color blocking rose in popularity in the 2000s. One-pieces are not just practical options for modest or athletic swimmers but are also a fun, retro, fashion statement. Perhaps the most popular style as of late is the bandeau, or strapless top. This fashion is ideal for sunbathers who are hoping for fewer tan lines.

Bathing suits, along with many facets of fashion, have evolved from a thing of function to a means of communication and expression. Today’s beachgoer aims to demonstrate their identity in a swimsuit. ♦


Board shorts, tankinis and mismatched tops and bottoms allow for individual expression in swimwear today.


Author Lexi Holian spends as much time on the beach as possible, in season, and admits to owning no fewer than 20 bathing suits.

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