How the tides have changed! A century of swimwear

Fashion is always changing — with trends coming in as quick as they go out. Swimwear is no different and has enjoyed a startling and stark evolution over the last century. Cleveland College of Art and Design, who offer a range of courses in fashion, including swimwear design courses, has created this article to explore the changes in swimwear both in retail and in the competitive world.

For men

From short sleeved one-piece suits to the iconic Speedo, men’s swimwear has undergone a hefty change over time. For example, in the 1900s, it was illegal for men to go topless on the beach. This meant the fashion of the time, while far less restrictive than women, was still quite regulated.

Let’s take a quick look at a breakdown of men’s swimwear over the years:

  • 1900s – As it was illegal for men to go topless, the swimsuits of this era were one piece styles, with short sleeves and short that cut around the mid-thigh or longer.
  • 1920s – Men were still unable to go topless. But, they pushed the boat out a little with sleeveless suits. Sun’s out, guns out!
  • 1930s – Finally, the ban on going topless on a beach was lifted for men and they were all too keen to embrace this new freedom. Shorts were now in fashion, and they were short-shorts at that.
  • 1950s – After decades of less-than-ideal material for swimwear, rayon became the foundation of swimwear. Being quick to dry and having a silky texture, rayon was combined with spandex…
  • 1970s – …a combination that would eventually lead to the well-known Speedos. These tight briefs were all the rage in the 70s. Along with bright colours and prints. What a decade to be alive!
  • 1980s – Perhaps Speedos weren’t the most comfortable piece of clothing? Whatever the reason, the 80s saw roomier boxers taking the spotlight of swimwear fashion.
  • 1990s – Ah, the 90s. Colourful Hawaiian prints on trunks were the way to go for men’s swimwear, coupled with the beach-goer requirement of a Puka shell necklace. Actually, did you keep hold of yours? They’re apparently making a comeback.
  • 2000s – All those Hawaiian prints got too much, it seems, as the 2000s returned to single colour, simple board shorts.
  • 2010 – Bored with board shorts a mere 10 years later, we’re now seeing a return of shorter cuts and brighter prints.

For women

It took a little longer for women to achieve some surfside freedom compared to men. In fact, some of the early swimwear for women was downright suffocating. In the Victorian era, women would have to cover up as much on the beach as they would anywhere else. Whole dresses, heavy and sleeved down to the wrists, shoes, and sometimes even stockings were even worn to maintain a women’s dignity and purity. And you thought getting the sand out of your sandals was a nightmare…

But how did women’s swimwear differ throughout the years?

  • 1900s – Women were still expected to cover up at this stage, though short sleeves and knee-grazing hems were allowed. The dresses were a little lighter than Victorian dresses, but used flannel and wool.
  • 1910s – In 1916, the company Jantzen launched a range of suits that clung to the body, much more like modern day one piece suits. But with shorter hems on the shorts and a lack of sleeves, the company had to market smart to avoid issues. The suit was called a “swimming suit” to promote its athletic purpose.
  • 1920s – Jantzen’s competitor against the beach dress slowly began to change swimwear fashion. In the 20s, women’s swimwear was made like the men’s and ditched the long sleeves, and the shorts became shorter. But women were subjected to rigorous laws regarding the length of their shorts. Exposing more leg than what was allowed would result in a woman being fined or even arrested. Women even had their shorts measured on the beach to make sure they didn’t break any rules.
  • 1930s – Synthetic fabrics and the ban on short length being lifted saw women taking to the beaches with far more freedom. Lower necklines and shorter hems, along with figure-hugging suits were all the rage. What would the 1900s think?!
  • 1940s – This decade had the historic first use of the bikini, worn by model Micheline Bernardi. Around this time, women were allowed to work more due to the war efforts. Along with proving their strength, women began to become confident enough to show it – spaghetti strap swimwear began to appear, along with bolder designs.
  • 1950s – And it didn’t stop there, as the 50s saw arguably the biggest change of all. Midriffs were exposed with the new bikini fashion and hit the ground running. It was still considered rather risqué though, so high-waists were used to cover up a little. After all, it was still considered inappropriate to expose the navel.
  • 1960s – If the 50s showed women slowly dipping a toe into the bikini phenomenon, the 60s saw women dive right in. Nylon and Lycra was introduced, allowing suits to be tighter than ever. Plus, the Brian Hyland classic Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, was released in June 1960 and is thought to have caused a surge of bikini sales and wider acceptance. So, where did women’s swimwear have left to go from here? One, two, three, four, tell the people what she wore…she wore a…
  • 1970s – …teenier bikini. Maybe not yellow or polka dot, but the 70s saw bikinis getting smaller, with bikini bottoms sitting a little lower than the hip bone.
  • 1980s – The 80s moved away from focusing on the cut so much as the colours. Bright prints and neon splashes brought 80s swimwear out of monotone with patterns and prints becoming popular choices. That’s not to say the cuts were ignored altogether, as plunge necklines saw more and more use.
  • 1990s – The 90s for women was the era of mix and match swimwear. With tankinis offering an alternative to bikinis and one-piece suits, women were encouraged to pair different prints and colours between their top and bottoms. For bikini-wear, cleavage was the focus; still embracing the 80’s love for prints and colours, the 90s saw higher hip cuts.
  • 2000s – In the 2000s and 2010s, we’re seeing a mix of everything! Women are encouraged to show as much or as little as they want, with emphasis on personal confidence rather than following a trend. People are also turning away from the idea of a ‘required bikini body’; if you want to wear a bikini, wear the bikini. If you want to wear a one piece, go ahead. This era is a pick and mix of previous trends. Go wild!

The competitive world

Perhaps less drastic, but the competitive swimming world has also seen a fair change in styles and suits, particularly for female professional swimmers.

Famously, Annette Kellermann attempted to swim the English Channel in 1905, aged 19. She did so in a one-piece suit that covered the legs but exposed her arms. As we’ve previously seen, this was unheard of in the 1900s. In fact, Kellermann was arrested once for wearing such a suit on the beach!

A little later, in 1912, Sarah Frances “Fanny” Durak won an Olympic gold medal for Australia in the 100m freestyle. At this point, professional swimmers wore the Janzen-style body-clinging suit, though still with shorts at a length.

The 1920s saw professional swimmers in fashionable one-piece suits with belts and skirts; the swim skirt would remain prevalent through the 1920s all the way to the 1950s. It wasn’t really until the 1970s that we saw swim suits become more streamlined for female swimmers. With no skirts to cause drag from the water, the suits were cut low at the hip. It was in the 70s that Shane Gould took home three gold medals for her country, along with a bronze and silver medal to boot!

Jumping forward to the next major change, the 2000s saw professional swimmers don the full-body suit. These suits were noted to reduce drag with their form-fitting, streamlined design, and compressed parts of the body to further help improve swimming. So much so that 130 world records were broken in swimming between 2008 and 2009. As a result, such suits were banned from further professional use.

After the ban, 2010 saw echoes of 1920s styles, as men are now required to cover only from navel to knee, and women from shoulder to knee.

Both fashion and competitive swimwear styles seem to have enjoyed a cycle back to vintage styles. But where will the future take swimwear to next? What do the next generation of swimwear designers have planned to continue the trend of change?

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  • Thanks for sharing the amazing information.
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