Despite the constant march of civilisation, some things will never change. One of these is the stress and anguish that surrounds an individual’s choice of bathing attire.
Also known as ‘cossies’ in Australia, ‘togs’ in the UK and Ireland, and ‘swimming trunks’ in the USA1, swimsuits have taken many forms; the appropriate amount and location of skin to show has occupied the minds of many throughout the ages. This Entry details some of the significant events in the history of the swimsuit.
Swimming has been practised by many cultures all over the world for thousands of years. But the swimsuit itself, as a piece of attire designed specifically for bathing, has a far more recent pedigree. It was almost certainly first popularised in ancient Greece and Rome, due to the rising popularity of public bathing amongst more well-to-do citizens. While nude bathing was perfectly acceptable in societies such as Athens, swimsuits were common amongst men and women. Some surviving artwork indicates that women sometimes wore a two-piece outfit that is reminiscent of today’s bikini.
Puritanism, Bathing Machines and Health Spas
After the Roman Empire fell2, the refined and decadent civilisation that had allowed for the popularisation of public bathhouses was gone. In its place came the Dark and Middle Ages and the rise of more prudish (predominantly Christian) ideas of propriety.
In fact, from this point the history of the swimsuit enters a long era of stasis – it wasn’t until the 18th Century that public bathing and the swimsuit became popular again. As it had been in Rome, public bathhouses were the exclusive domain of the wealthy elite in Europe. Those who could afford the new craze of ‘taking the waters’ at health spas in places such as Bath in England required new swimwear to do so, and the styles had changed.
During the 18th and 19th Centuries the demands of propriety were still very strict, despite the spas being segregated by gender. Most wore woollen swimming costumes when swimming. Wool was useful because it doesn’t become see-through when wet (although it does cling, hugs the body and feels horrible to wear). Women wore stockings and swimsuits rather like skirts or dresses, with the dress ends sometimes weighed down to stop them rising up upon entering the water. Men wore a woollen leotard-type arrangement that showed arms and the lower leg, but showing the chest was still considered unseemly.
By the late 19th Century, seaside holidays were becoming more popular as train travel to coastal villages improved in the USA and UK. Bathing machines, first trialled at health spas, were popularised here. They were somewhat like mobile changing rooms mounted in a carriage-type arrangement – women were ferried to the edge of the water so that nobody would see them in their swimming costumes.
By this stage, men’s swimsuits had started to show more leg, and at the beachside had even started to show some chest, with the shorts and Y-front-type designs of today beginning to make an appearance.
The 20th Century
One, Two, Three, Four, Tell the People What She Wore
In 1907, something scandalous occurred. Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman wore a revolutionary new one-piece bathing suit (revealing her legs and arms) to a swimming demonstration in Boston and was promptly arrested. However, there was no stopping the one-piece, and over the next twenty years it became the norm for women. This was aided significantly by the advances in synthetic fabrics (most notably the development of Lycra), which allowed swimsuit designers to dispense with their reliance on wool as a raw material.
In 1946 another seismic shift occurred as fashion designer Louis Reard presented the bikini – based on South American tribal costumes and named after the South Pacific atoll3. When it was initially conceived none of Reard’s usual models would agree to wear it. Society reacted in horror, and the bikini was initially banned by conservativeCatholic countries. It didn’t become acceptable to wear one until well into the 1950s, even though by today’s standards the first bikini had more skin coverage than contemporary designs.
Apart from the gradual increase in permissiveness throughout the 20th Century, arguably it was two other factors that helped to bring the bikini into the mainstream. One was Brian Hyland’s chart-topping song ‘Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’, which was released in 1960. The other was the increasing prominence of swimsuit glamour modelling – Sports Illustrated magazine being one of the pioneers in this area with its legendary swimsuit issues.
Other post-bikini innovations regarding the female swimsuit include flirtations with the topless ‘Monokini’ (which society doesn’t appear to be ready for quite yet) and the Brazil-led popularisation of the thong bathing suit (or ‘string bikini’) in the 1970s.
Friends Don’t Let Friends Wear Speedos
During the early 20th Century, men’s bathing suits shorts got progressively shorter. A specialised swimsuit company called Speedo formed in 1928 in Australia and Speedos rapidly became the generic term for Y-front brief swimsuits for men.
However, this wasn’t the end of the shorts/Y-fronts debate. The popularisation of surfing and surfing culture saw the popularity of shorts (re-christened ‘board shorts’) rise again. This was coupled with an increasing recognition that just because you can show as much skin as society will let you get away with, it’s not always attractive – the popularity of Speedos on the beach decreased accordingly4. Taste crimes were not limited to Speedos, however, as the 1980s fashion of wearing Bermuda shorts5 makes clear.
Swimwear is also an important factor in competitive swimming, and in hindsight it appears surprising that innovations lagged so far behind society in men’s swimming costumes; it wasn’t until 1936 that the first bare-chested male swimmers turned up at the Olympics. Quickly, however, ‘Speedos’ became the norm in the pool for men, and variations on the one-piece the norm for women6 – and shaven legs for both genders.
This remained the status quo until new futuristic bodysuits made their debut at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Made of new and different synthetic fibres, the suits became available to elite swimmers, accompanied by claims that they produce less drag than shaved human skin. They remain a very expensive option, so the most sophisticated models are unlikely to be seen down at the local baths any time soon.
No doubt fashions will come and go, and who knows what the future will hold? Will we all end up bathing in the nude7, or will the depletion of the ozone layer force a return to full coverage to prevent sunburn? Only time will tell.
You can investigate more on the subject at the Vintage Fashion Guild.
1 You can explore more linguistic differences in the Colloquialisms, Slang and Humour section of the Guide.
2 You can read more about the Romans in Britain here.
3 A site used for early nuclear testing.
4 Although this argument has been levelled at bikinis as well.
5 Knee-length swimming shorts which were essentially the swimwear equivalent of Hawaiian shirts – and about as tasteful.
6 Bikini tops tend not to survive a competitive dive start.
7 Also known as ‘skinny-dipping’. Something everyone should try at least once, preferably with a like-minded companion.
Here you can see the history of the bathing Suite
and here too.