Beautiful, But (Sometimes) Horrible—A History Of Women's Swimwear

Photo: REX Shutterstock.
Retro high-waisted bikinis might be dotting shopping sites and Instagram the entire summer, but the real throwback style might just be a bandeau bikini and briefs. True story: Women in Roman bathhouses are depicted as wearing bandeau bikinis in historic mosaics, in a time prior to mixed-sex bathing.

But, of course, swimwear has definitely evolved — as evidenced by London's Fashion and Textile Museum's latest exhibit, Riviera Style. From the 1800's wool swim gowns (which frankly sound just awful) to the bloomers of the 1850s to modern day's cut-out one-pieces, we chart the evolution of swimwear throughout the ages, with help from paper-doll illustrations by the classic artist Tom Tierney. Who knows? Perhaps tunics and tiny board shorts will come back in style; but we'll be happy to leave those wool onesies in the past, thankyouverymuch.
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Courtesy of Paper Studio Press "Tom Tierney's History of Swimwear Paper Dolls"; Illustrated by Tom Tierney.
In the early 1800s, going to the beach became a social activity, so bathing gowns turned into a fashion statement. "Early material would have been wool serge or heavy cotton," Dennis Nothdruft, curator of London's Fashion and Textile exhibit Riviera Style, told Refinery29 in an email. "Women bathers would have worn stockings, shoes, and caps as well."
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Courtesy of Paper Studio Press "Tom Tierney's History of Swimwear Paper Dolls"; Illustrated by Tom Tierney.
By the 1850s, bloomers became the norm! Their rise to popularity in everyday fashion is attributed to Amelia Bloomer, editor of the first newspaper for women, The Lily, from 1849 to 1853. Inspired by Elizabeth Smith Miller in New York, Bloomer wrote many articles advocating the pant-tunic outfit, with which women could "throw off the burden of long, heavy skirts."
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Courtesy of Paper Studio Press "Tom Tierney's History of Swimwear Paper Dolls"; Illustrated by Tom Tierney.
As the 19th century progresses, sailor fashion becomes even more popular. This illustration from Tom Tierney's History of Swimwear is dated from 1890 to 1910.
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Courtesy of Paper Studio Press "Tom Tierney's History of Swimwear Paper Dolls"; Illustrated by Tom Tierney.
Hemlines began to rise in the early 1900s. "The swimwear story is part of the story of our relationship to morals and body," Nothdruft explains, and as it became increasingly acceptable to show more skin, swimsuits became ever skimpier. Most prominently, swimmer Annette Kellerman challenged convention by wearing a knit bathing unitard, with a scoop neck, showing half her leg and her arms (word is, it was originally fashioned out of men's swimsuits and black stockings). Finally! Something women can actually swim in.
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Courtesy of Paper Studio Press "Tom Tierney's History of Swimwear Paper Dolls"; Illustrated by Tom Tierney.
Following Kellerman, Jantzen, a knittery in Portland, OR, began selling commercial "swimming suits" made from wool in the 1910s. "Knitted swimsuits were developed with the shift from bathing in the sea to swimming," Nothdruft says. Eventually, other knitted swimsuits were made with cotton or elasticated thread, and the body-hugging aesthetic continued well into the 1920s. There were even suits with — gasp! — cutouts, and a scandalous two-piece version.
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Courtesy of Paper Studio Press "Tom Tierney's History of Swimwear Paper Dolls"; Illustrated by Tom Tierney.
In the 1940s to 1950s, feminine cuts, sweetheart necklines, scalloped edges, and all sorts of design-forward details came into play. Plus, "Lycra [and nylon] was introduced to swimwear and became popular in the 1950s, as you could get a great shape and no bagging," Nothdruft says. But nothing was quite as big as...
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Courtesy of Paper Studio Press "Tom Tierney's History of Swimwear Paper Dolls"; Illustrated by Tom Tierney.
...the bikini. French engineer Louis Réard coined this new shape in 1946, naming it after a U.S. atomic test off the Bikini Atoll to emphasize the effect his design would have on the swim world. Soon, the two-pieces were everywhere. "It really took off in the 1960s," Nothdruft says. "The main point of the bikini, unlike the two-piece swimsuit which was also worn, was exposing the navel. This was considered risqué when introduced but became the norm in following decades."
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Courtesy of Paper Studio Press "Tom Tierney's History of Swimwear Paper Dolls"; Illustrated by Tom Tierney.
The 1960s-70s swimsuits became sleeker, smaller, smoother, and tighter. Rudi Gernreich introduced the monokini, a topless bathing suit, and he goes on to create the "pubkini," meant to show off pubic hair. As the '70s advanced, bikinis began coming in psychedelic prints. Thong bathing suits hit the beaches of Rio de Janeiro in the '70s, too.
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Courtesy of Paper Studio Press "Tom Tierney's History of Swimwear Paper Dolls"; Illustrated by Tom Tierney.
The 1980s and '90s were all about showing off your thighs. High-cut briefs that extended the leg line became popular, but a narrower bottom pressures many women to get rid of their body hair. No surprise, Brazilian waxes were introduced to the U.S. in 1987.
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Courtesy of Paper Studio Press "Tom Tierney's History of Swimwear Paper Dolls"; Illustrated by Tom Tierney.
Anything goes nowadays. One-pieces made a huge comeback in the 2000s (especially with sexy cutouts), and high-waisted briefs are still gaining popularity today. "There has also been a return to the shaping of bodies through swimsuits, much like the structured and corseted swimsuits of the 1950s, though the fabrication is now the key to control," Nothdruft says. It's safe to say, however, that wool suits are never coming back in style.
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