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The Evolution of Swimwear: A Brief History

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The Evolution of Swimwear: A Brief History

By Marla Hamed

Throughout the decades fashion has undergone change, but nothing has developed quite as much as the swimsuit has.

At the start of the 20th Century, modesty was of the utmost importance to women and this had a huge impact on the type of clothing designed for and available to women. Swimwear designs were not centred around practicality, but instead modesty. This resulted in women wearing cumbersome "bathing dresses" with pantaloons, that were made of heavy fabrics which were a far cry from convenience for swimmers. These designs purposefully drowned a woman's figures and were appropriately referred to as leisurely "bathing suits" rather than "swimsuits".

Annette Kellerman

With the suffragette movement underway in 1903, attitudes towards women and their rights were being challenged. The effects of this would soon trickle down into all aspects of life, including paving the way for changes in women's swimwear. A central figure at this time was actress, writer, and professional swimmer Annette Kellerman. She invented synchronised swimming and was the first woman to wear a one-piece bathing costume, which allowed her to move more freely in her practice. Though her brave appearance led to her arrest in 1907, her impact on swimwear was felt; she inspired other women and her one-piece swimsuit was so popular that she started her own line of one-piece swimwear costumes.

Then, around 1916, it became the norm for designers to release tighter-fitting swimsuits that revealed the shoulders and legs. In the 1920's-1940's women started to wear swimsuits that were tighter around the waist and bust than previous designs had ever been, and they were accompanied by short skirts to preserve some modesty. Whilst this was the most significant development swimwear had seen, women were still bound by the requirement of a minimum skirt length, and authorities made sure this was enforced by monitoring and fining women who disobeyed.

Swimwear saw the most daring transformation in 1946 with the invention of the bikini by Louis Réard. At first, it was received as bold, but with time became the new norm, with leading figures of the decade such as Marilyn Monroe pushing the culture of what was acceptable. Bralettes were often matched with high waisted bikini bottoms, partially retaining the skirt design of previous swimsuits.

The carefree attitude that was sweeping nations in the 1960's empowered women to do, and dress, as they pleased. A new wave of designs reflected the playful and electric atmosphere, with colourful, bright, neon and printed designs being introduced. In the 1980's, plunging suits becoming the new norm, revealing more than ever before. Far from the modest designs of the early 1900s, swimwear had now become a way to make a statement, and designs focused on trends - mixing and matching to make a statement became popular.

With woman's independence growing more in the 1980s-2000s, swimwear again reflected the culture and more risqué swimwear was introduced onto the market. At the same time, more sports orientated swimsuits also came onto the market in the 1990s-2000s. 

Since the beginning of the 21st century, swimwear has offered women a platform to fashionably express themselves and celebrate body diversity. With a variety of alluring choices available on the market today women can embrace their personal styles in swimwear. Swim season is just around the corner and luxurious cut out bikinis and one-piece swimsuits are trending. Today, women enjoy the freedom of experimenting and choosing between the myriad of options available.