Unbuttoning Fashion: Swimwear

Nowadays swimwear comes in endless forms, from the one-piece, the bikini and everything in between. But this wasn’t always the case. Back in the 1800s swimwear consisted of women wearing full length and full coverage dresses. In order to keep their legs covered, women wore stockings and bloomers, and dresses were weighted down with lead, limiting women to only wading, not swimming.

As the 1900s began, bathing suits had shed some layers, and women were mostly wearing the popular ‘princess style’ – a one piece with a skirt up to the knees and stockings underneath. At this point, police patrolled the beaches in order to stop women who showed too much leg.

After WWI, the 1920s saw the one-piece arrive, the first recognisable bathing suit. They were not the closely fitting swimsuits around today, but romper-style bathing suits, usually in a dark ribbed wool that covered part of the thigh, however they weren’t quite so appealing when they got wet and sagged heavily…

Finally, in the 1940s after WWII rationing, and the glorification of the hourglass figure, the two piece that we know today arrived, with stretch fabrics, stomach panels, and built in brasseries. Sleek styles emerged, like Ava Gardner’s iconic polka-dot two piece.

The 1960s saw the emergence of the bikini. Though arguably invented in 1946, the naval-bearing bikini didn’t hit mainstream fashion until the middle of the 1960s. Followed by skinnier straps and softer tops, nobody nailed this look better than Brigitte Bardot, ‘The Girl in the Bikini’.

By the 1980s, mainstream fashion’s infatuation with the slender gave way to a fuller and more athletic body, leading to sportier styles appearing in Vogue. Nothing epitomizes this better than the infamous red one-pieces of Baywatch.

The 1990s saw a split between the minimalist, with Naomi Campbell’s clean-cut Hermès swimsuit, and the ostentatiously flashy, with heavy logos and gold satin. Come the 2000s, sporty hipster bottoms and triangle tops became the rage.

Ultimately, whatever kind of swimwear we wear today, whether that be a bright bikini or a sporty swimsuit, we should remember the times when women had far less freedom to wear whatever they wanted. A time when women could barely wade in the water from their heavy dresses, let alone swim. A time when police patrolled the beaches. So, whilst I won’t be wearing a bikini any time soon… when I do, I’d like to think that the women from two hundred years or so ago would be proud, and most likely a little shocked at how far we’ve come today.

Image: Philippe Freyhof

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