The Evolution of Swimwear 

From modest to revealing swimwear styles, the history of swimsuits and beachwear has come a long way since ancient times. While the swimsuit of the past covered up most of the body, today’s styles are significantly more daring. Let’s take a look at how swimwear has evolved through the centuries and the factors that influenced swimwear styles over the years.

Early Swimsuit Styles: Bathing Gowns and Other Long, Modest Styles

The first bathing suits appeared in France and England during the 1700s, although swimming with them was far from common. These early styles were more modest than swimsuits of today, covering most of the body from the neck to the ankles. Often called “bathing gowns”, these styles featured dresses with pantaloons, bonnets, and mitts for modesty. Over time, the pantaloons shortened, eventually resembling bloomers, but the lengths remained below the knee for both men and women.

In the 1800s, fashionable women continued to wear long dresses and capes to the beach, although loose-fitting costumes designed specifically for swimming started to emerge. Flannel undergarments, cotton pantalettes, and loose dresses were all popular options. In the mid-1800s, the “women’s swimming costume” was introduced, which included a skirt, tunic, and bloomers to cover the body, often with a loose over-dress or under-vest.

Around the same time, men’s swimwear was long and baggy. Men wore drawstring-waist skirted trunks to the beach, often made with wool or canvas. These early swimsuits were loose-fitting and covered most of the torso, including the arms, chest, and legs.

The Influence of Diving Pioneers and Olympic Swimmers

It wasn’t until the early 1900s, when swimming and diving moved from a leisure activity to a sport, that swimsuit styles started to get a little more revealing. Diving pioneers, including Annette Kellerman and Aileen Riggin, played a pivotal role in the evolution of swimsuit fashion.

Kellerman, an Australian native, wore fitted one-piece suits while participating in swimming and diving exhibitions which were scandalous at the time. She was arrested several times for indecency and the so-called “Kellerman suit”, a sleeveless one-piece suit with full frontal coverage, helped revolutionize swimwear.

Riggin, an American swimmer and diver, was the first woman to win a gold medal for the U.S. for women’s springboard diving. She, too, wore one-piece suits liked Kellerman’s and advocated for more form-fitting and less restrictive styles. While they may seem modest by today’s standards, these pioneering swimmers made waves in their time.

The Olympics were another catalyst for the evolution of swimwear fashion. The games created an environment in which athletes of both genders competed against one another, but with one significant exception. While men’s swimwear remained fairly revealing, women’s suits were still conservative.

In the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, women were swimming in bloomers and knee-length over-dresses, while men were wearing swim trunks. This dynamic shifted in subsequent Olympics, when swimming and diving became more gender-neutral and women no longer felt obligated to cover up.

1920s Burkinis, Sport Suits, and Bikinis

The 1920s saw a dramatic shift away from the antiquated and modest styles of the past. The newly-invented “burkini” brought comfort and coverage to Muslim women, allowing them to swim safely. These suits consisted of full-coverage tops, leggings with shorts, and a veil – a style still popular today.

That decade also saw the introduction of other styles, including the sport suit, which covered the midsection with a tight, sheetlike skirt that tied in the back and a midriff wrap cape. As American morals relaxed following World War I, these suits allowed women to move more freely than they were able to before.

Most notably, the two-piece swimsuit, or “bikini”, was invented in the 1920s by French Engineer Louis Réard. It was made up of two triangles of fabric, one held together at the neck and the other suspended by strings. This style was considered scandalous at the time and Réard was unable to find anyone to model the suit until 1958, when the first bikini-clad model graced the magazine pages.

The Original Bikini to Today’s Sleek and Sexy One-Pieces

Today, swimwear has evolved to be more daring than ever. Bikinis are more revealing than ever before, often consisting of little more than string and fabric. Tankinis, bandinis, and monokinis offer more coverage than traditional two-piece styles, while one-piece suits are sleek and figure-hugging.

Women aren’t the only ones to feel the shift in swimsuit style. Men now sport sleek and figure-hugging styles, some even with cutouts, with swim trunks being the most popular style. Boardshorts, a style of swim trunks popularized in the 70s, are still a great option for those looking for more coverage, while swim briefs and speedos offer less.

From baggy and loose-fitting drawstring trunks to tiny bikinis and one-piece suits that hug the body, the evolution of swimwear has been dramatic and far-reaching. From bathing gowns, bloomers, and over-dresses to string bikinis, the choices of today are more revealing and daring than ever before. Whether you’re a modest swimmer or a beach daredevil, the history of swimwear offers something for everyone.