Women's swimwear fashion history
Hello, everyone! Summer is almost over, but the summer mood is still on, isn’t it? Weather permitting, for those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, there are many beach days still left on the calendar which means it is never too late to buy a new bathing suit! Check out Ecce Homo’s brand-new queer RetroWaves swimwear collection, body-positive and gender-neutral as always! This leads us to this blog article which is the second part of our blog series on the history of swimwear fashion. In our latest blog entry, we traced the his-tory of men’s swimwear throughout the centuries all the way to the 2000s! As promised, in what follows women’s swimwear fashion history will be our subject matter with all its twists and breakthroughs, continuities and recurring patterns.
As we like to remind ourselves in this fashion blog, the history of fashion is literally the history of gender and sexuality, while it provides us with indispensable insights on their contigent nature. However, the already limited historical references to swimwear as a historiographic sub-subject of the history of fashion and the very specific format of any blog post make it almost impossible to present schematically any narrative other than the dominant one. Besides our exclusive geographical focus on the UK and the USA, we would also like to underline the highly gendered terms in which the story of bathing suits is written by projecting to the past a strict gender binary in pink and blue. A bit of historical context that is offered here and there is in no way an adequate antidote to these shortcomings, but rather a reminder of the historical embeddedness of each garment which is a product, a practical piece of clothing and an aesthetic object that mirrors the culture of its historical emergence. So, let’s get into it, shall we?
The her-story of swimwear seems to begin in 350 B.C. in Ancient Greece with the first recorded use of a type of clothing designed for swimming which surprisingly enough resembled the modern-day bikini consisting of a bandeau and a small bottom. Sneak pick: bikini was ‘officially’ invented in the 1940s! Such ancient bikinis are depicted in Roman murals displaying women exercising, which means that there is no conclusive evidence that these ‘bikinis’ were used for bathing. It is more plausible that swimming was an all-naked activity. However, a bit of historical information regarding the history of swimming itself is due here in order to put the fashion history of swimwear in its proper context.
First of all, ancient Greek and Roman bathhouses served the very practical need of bathing despite the fact there were also important sites of casual socialization like nowadays, a practice that continued to a large extent during the Middle Ages. Usually, these facilities were gender segregated and the ‘bathing’ was taking place in nude long before the consideration of nudity as immoral or lustful came to the front around the time of Renaissance due to the widespread influence of Christianity as a moral creed. Even the sense of embodiment is historically situated along with the series of moral sentiments attached to one’s body. In many cases throughout history, nudity was perceived as the natural state of a person and not something to be ‘covered’ and to be ashamed of. On top of that, swimming was an activity disassociated from leisure, but it was rather oriented towards practical uses, such as feeding, transport or physical therapy.
Fast forward to the 17th century and more precisely to England! Nude female bathing in famous spas of this era, such in the homonymous city of Bath, was the rule up until the 1670s when the change of morals towards body negativity slowly begun. The turning point towards the ban of nudity seems to be the year 1737 when the Bath Corporation put in place an official bathing dress code for both men and women. Regarding the later, it prescribed the following: ‘No female person shall at any time hereafter go into a bath or baths within this city by day or by night without a decent shift on their bodies.’ Let’s keep in mind that the ultra-conservative historical era known as the Victorian Era -that favored modesty over style when it comes to bathing suits- begins almost a century later!
Bathing suits? Well, sort of! The so-called ‘bathing gown or dress’ was exactly what the words (do not) promise, that is an impractical in terms of swimming or sunbathing and totally uncomfortable dress which fully covered the body from head to toe! This dress was made of wool or flannel, the many layers of fabric ensured the absence of any transparency when wet, and the whole thing looked like a loose chemise. Two fun facts here. Firstly, weights were sometimes sown into the hem of the dress in order to prevent any ‘accidents’, such as the dress floating up leaving the legs exposed! Secondly, some resorts of the era provided their female clientele with ‘bathing machines’, an enclosed carriage of sorts meant to carry women from the shore to the water in order to keep their modesty from the preying male eyes! However, let’s keep in mind that this her-story refers mostly to women belonging to upper classes of the English society who were the only ones able to afford these garments and ‘luxuries.’
By the mid-19 century, a series of historical developments set off by the Industrial Revolution enabled the reconceptualization of swimming from a practical or therapeutic activity to a form of recreation for the masses. The relative financial prosperity along with the construction of an extensive railroad network that connected the urban centers with the coastline and the rise of a pop culture complemented by the relative relaxation of strict moral and dress codes led to the emergence of a ‘vacation-by-the-beach culture’ where many people could spend their leisure time swimming and sunbathing. These changes had as a result the creation of a new type of bathing suit for women corresponding to the new spirit of their time! This bathing suit was a two-piece suit consisting of bloomers and black stockings or a relatively short gown and a pair of trousers. By 1855, drawers made their first appearance too, while, by the end of the century, the ‘Princess’ cut, a one-piece combining blouse and trousers, was introduced. It seems that, during this century that gave permission to women to swim in public, a certain pattern in the designing of women’s swimwear repeated itself by making a small step towards body positivity and practicality.
And this brings us to the 20th century when things begin to appear more familiar to our modern-day eyes in terms of swimwear. But before going any further, let us make a detour into her-story of feminism in order to get a bit of context for what it follows! During this period, from the mid-19th to early 20th century, the first wave of feminism was taking place in some ‘western’ countries. Not without its predecessors, this period of feverish political and social activism is characterized -among other things- by two features: firstly, its claims were laid in terms of sameness with the men, and secondly, its struggles were focused on gaining legal equality on the basis of equal rights in work, vote, education, etc. Perhaps, the most notable and influential text of this period was Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminist treatise titled ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ and published in 1792. This seminal text laid the ground and inspired the first-wave feminists of the following decades by making the case for the moral, social, and political equality of the ‘two’ sexes in the democratic and humanistic spirit of Enlightenment, especially the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The British Women's Social and Political Union -whose only female members are known as suffragettes- owns a great dept to Wollstonecraft’s ideas. This activist organization was founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst and their main motto was ‘Votes for women’ after which they were named by the press as they were advocating for women’s suffrage, that is the civil rights of voting. Among their activist strategists to further their causes for legal equality on the basis of a sameness to men, two stand apart as they have been historically deployed by various activist groups in the following decades around the world, direct action and civil disobedience.
When it comes to swimming, these political changes resulted in a more relaxed body policing and women’s engaging in swimming as both a sport and a recreational activity. This meant a transformation of the very bathing suit itself in order to reflect these societal changes, and as such the early 1900s saw a design of swimming suit more practical and body conscious, a one-piece tank-style jumper made of wool that allowed more movement and inaugurated a brand-new designing era for women’s swimwear with gradual exposure of more skin. Among the pioneers of the era, the Australian swimmer, designer, and marketeer Annette Kellerman pushed things forward for women after her notorious arrest in 1909 in the USA for wearing a swimsuit deemed inappropriate by the local authorities. However, this very one-piece swimsuit named after her that looked a lot like men’s swimwear of the time in terms of its body-consciousness was meant to become the standard design of the decade in Europe. The form-fitting trait of this swimwear dominated also the next decade by becoming even shorter and lighter exposing the arm and the legs above the knees, while the neckline got even lower right above the bosom. In addition, in 1911, Adeline Trapp became the first woman to swim across New York's East River wearing a similar bathing suit. In 1912, another victory for women took place in the same year’s Summer Olympics at which female swimming was introduced. The female athletes who competed at these Games were all wearing ‘The Annette Kellerman’ bathing suit which prompted the following year Carl Jantzen to design a two-piece swimwear comprised of a pair of shorts and short-sleeve top, the first ever of its kind and a major breakthrough in fashion history! Fun fact: the term ‘swimsuit’ was coined in 1915 by Jantzen Knitting Mills launching a swimwear brand named the Red Diving Girl. All these developments changed the perspective on swimwear and implanted this type of garment into the cultural imagery of the time. Among the most influential representations of swimwear was the bathing-suit day that took place at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1916. Around this time, the tunic meant to cover the shorts of these bathing suits substituted the aprons of the previous decades, another important step towards making women’s swimwear more stylish and sexier!
Stay tuned for our next blog article on the fashion history of women’s swimwear!
Based on information from: