Bathing Suit Trends Over History, From Bathing Skirts To Plus-Size Bikinis

The swimsuit has had a bumpy ride through history. Women who just want a dip have been subjected to everything from obscenity trials to fluffy leggings. Swimwear's always been fraught with ideas about modesty, social change, acceptable fabric and women's liberation: a swimsuit's never just a swimsuit. If you ever look at your bikini and wonder how on earth we got to the point where wearing a few triangles to a beach became the norm, take a leisurely stroll back through the history of women's bathing suits, or "costumes," and I promise you won't take your "front-tie or cut-away?" options for granted ever again.

by JR Thorpe

Ancient Rome: Bikinis Are Not For The Water

A few murals show Roman women playing sports in what we recognize as modern “bikinis” — but there’s a crucial difference here. We have no evidence that they actually wore them in the water; they were just easy sportswear. Think of it as the equivalent of that Net-a-Porter swimsuit that’s too good to get wet.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

1600s: Canvas Tunics

We have no images of the first real designated “bathing costumes,” which appeared in the 17th century for women to take the waters at popular places like Bath, with its mineral pools. They simply wore shifts, usually made out of heavy canvas so that nobody could see the outline of their bodies, and with enormous bell sleeves. How … impractical.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

1850s: Swimsuits That Look Like Dresses

The 19th century was the first real age of public bathing, in the sea and elsewhere. Women wore specially constructed dresses that looked a bit like the ones they’d wear on land — and they were thick, so nobody could see a rogue bit of flesh under wet fabric. Modesty, obvs.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Late 19th Century: The Two-Piece (Kind Of)

In the late 1800s, the first “two piece” bathing costumes debuted: short tunics (with jaunty nautical themes, no less), plus a pair of calf-length leggings underneath. This was far more practical and probably much better to paddle in, as it wasn’t going to drag you under.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Early 1900s: Frilly Costumes And Bathing Machines

The Victorian era brought the idea of “bathing machines” — carriages which were pushed into the water, allowing bathers to come in and out of them in peace and modesty. The leggings by this point were gone, and a simple single “dress” became the bathing costume du jour.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

1910s: One-Piece Activism

Australian swimming star Annette Kellerman first advocated women wearing a tight one-piece swimsuit in 1907; she was arrested for public indecency for showing her arms and legs, but the floodgates had opened. The time had come for swimsuits that fitted the body, and the modern swimsuit was born.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

1920s: Bathing "Skirts" And Under-Shorts

The 1920s’ swimsuits were horrifically skimpy by previous standards, but still had an air of practicality. Most were close-fitted tunics with tank shoulders, a belt, and, underneath, close-fitting shorts. Magazines had a field day, but lithe beach bunnies refused to look back, and the swimsuit as couture fashion statement became a Roaring Twenties staple.

Image: Getty

1946: The Invention Of The Bikini

Fabric shortage and the increasing trend for skimpiness led to the French invention of the bikini, named after Bikini Atoll, where the nuclear bomb had been first tested. (Yup.) It showed the navel for the first time. The maker, Louis Reard, said that a bikini was not genuine “unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring.” Now that’s skimpy.

Image: Getty

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Late 1940s: High-Waisted Bottoms, Structured Busts

The real boom in two-pieces, though they were far more structured and modest than today’s bikinis — think Taylor Swift’s swimwear style — came with the glamour photography of the 1940s. Starlets rushed to be photographed in swimsuits with structured busts and high waists, showing off their legs.

Image: Getty.

1950s: Brigitte Bardot's Bombshell Moment

The bikini was popular in the ’50s, but it really reached its zenith when young French starlet Brigitte Bardot wore a skimpy version at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival. The strapless top and low-cut bottoms look decidedly modern, and the photos caused a fashion sensation: the “Bardot affect.”

Image: Getty

1960s and '70s: New Inventions

The 1960s were the age of the bikini: “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” was a hit on the charts, ”beach bunny” films starring bikini-clad heroines were all over the box office, and Ursula Andress in Dr. No was the definitive bikini-clad temptress. “Practical” bikinis, with belts and holsters, were briefly popular. Fashion was really beginning to open up.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

1980s: New Fabrics And High Sides

The 1980s brought two major changes for the fashion of bikinis: the discovery of new man-made water-resistant fabrics that allowed you to tan “through” them, and the propensity for women to wear bottoms with very high sides, drawn up over the hip bones.

Image: Getty

1990s: The Triangle Becomes The Norm

The triangle bikini is what we now call the classic bikini shape, but it’s actually only been the norm for about two decades. It first popped up in the 1990s, and is generally made with several strings and triangles of fabric.

Image: Getty


Today: All About The Mix And Match

These days, the dominant swimsuit shape is definitely still the bikini — but there have been a lot of different interpretations. A huge rise in plus-size swimwear is the next trend, and one-pieces and high-waisted bottoms have come back into fashion, but the main fashion statement on the world’s beaches? Mixing and matching your tops and bottoms.

Image: Getty