The Evolution of the Swimsuit

Turn of the century swimwear for women trunks full coverage history of swimwear

From Bathing Gowns to Tankinis: The Evolution of the Swimsuit

guest post by Issy Lovett

Four in 10 Americans planned to take a family vacation in 2019, meaning that if those numbers are anything like last year, swimwear will continue to be on the minds of many who plan to hit the beach in 2020. However, while there are many options today, such as gender-neutral suits to the classic bikini and everything in between, it didn’t use to be this way. In fact, before swimsuits, many simply swam in the nude – over the years, swimwear has gone from completely conservative to totally risque in the process — not to mention generated some unique and innovative options along the way, too.

The first swimsuits – bathing gowns of the 1800s

Swimwear in early 1800's

While the first actual swimsuits were established back in the 1800’s, they were far from what we all know today as swimwear. This is because the swimsuits of the 1800’s consisted of long, black gowns known as ‘bathing gowns’. Bathing gowns consisted of stockings, bloomers, and drawers, with the intention of providing full and modest coverage for women. Oftentimes made of wool (as it tended to not soak up as much water as cotton), the skirts of bathing gowns were sometimes even weighted at the hems in order to prevent the skirt from floating up while in the water. While women’s swimsuits might seem extreme, men’s suits in the 1880’s weren’t much better. Also made from wool, men’s suits were similar to the undergarments of the time, and was quite heavy when wet. Such suits made it difficult to actually swim, though over time swimwear evolved to become more streamlined and comfortable.

A turning point

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, swimsuits took a turning point in history, as more skin was bared in the new century. In the late 1800s’, accessories like bathing shoes were common and were used to prevent cuts from shells or broken glass on the beach. Bathing coats also became a staple for many, and while not nearly as protective as the bathing gowns, the coats (often long-sleeved and made of silk) provided protection until one was ready to get into the water. 

swimsuit regulations in 1800's

In the 1910’s, bathing suits began to get shorter and more form-fitting, with men wearing tank suits and women wearing sailor-inspired trends – though that didn’t mean it was necessarily socially acceptable to wear to the beach. In fact, swimsuit regulations were put in place at beaches across the United States, and throughout the early 1900’s, swimwear that wasn’t considered appropriate, or was too revealing, could actually get you arrested. In fact, one Australian swimmer by the name Annette Kellerman was arrested and charged with indecent exposure in 1907 for wearing a knee-length suit that left her neck, legs, and arms exposed.

historic swimsuits - legal lengths

The introduction of more modern styles

1940's men in striped swimsuits and woman in modern 1940 suit

A swimwear classic, the modern bikini was finally introduced in 1946 by french engineer Louis Reard, and went on to gain wide acceptance from Western society. Many other modern styles were brought to life throughout the later 1900’s as well — in the ’40s, swimwear for women began to evolve into little dress-like styles, while the ’60s saw smaller and tighter suits. In the ’70s, even more risque styles became popular, such as cut-out suits, thongs, and string bikinis — along with bold patterns and colors to match. And, in the ’90s, the hit show Baywatch inspired suit styles that focused on lower necklines and high leg cuts. However, it’s thanks to the evolution of swimsuits throughout the late 1900s and early 2000s that eventually led to the innovation of today’s gender-neutral options. 

Baywatch bathing suits 1990's

Innovation at it’s finest

Throughout the decades, swimwear has seen many innovative styles and forms. For example, the 2000’s brought some innovation with the spin on the classic bikini known as the ‘tankini’ — a tank-top-like top with traditional bikini bottoms. Swimwear today has evolved to bring options like a wide range of sizes for different body types, and gender-neutral swimwear that everyone can enjoy while still feeling comfortable. Because of these innovations in the swimwear industry, beachgoers everywhere bring a broad variety of styles across the board, with everything from vintage suits to classic bikinis constantly trending and in style — though perhaps it’s all thanks to swimwear of the late 1900s.

Cutout suits and the especially daring styles of the ’70s and ’80s also brought significant innovation to the table, and even more so with bold and bright daring patterns. In fact, swimwear of the late 1900s was more daring than ever before – bringing confidence to many. This is potentially the reason why suits today widely represent suits of the past and are often available in several colors and patterns – not to mention styles. With that said, it’s clear that swimwear of the past plays a major role in today’s hottest looks.

From conservative bathing gowns to risque revealing thongs, it’s evident that swimsuits have heavily evolved throughout history to match the styles of the times. Without such evolution and style risks taken, we wouldn’t have today’s innovative and all-inclusive options that we all know and love.