The first sea bathers in the 17th and 18th centuries would probably have swum naked. These bathers were people who had a morning dip prescribed by their doctors as a cure for ill health – it was not until well into the 19th century that people began to enjoy bathing and it became, as it is today, a leisure pursuit.
19th Century Fashions
Women’s Bathing Costumes
Written descriptions of 18th century Scarborough tell us that women wore long flannel shifts with long sleeves, and this was probably the same all over the country. In the 1840s women’s bathing costumes are described as sacks turned upside down with holes for the head and arms, but just a decade later more elegant styles emerged. In 1852 the French made a women’s bathing costume based on Amelia Bloomer’s dress for day wear. This costume consisted of long trousers gathered at the ankles with a short sleeved, knee or thigh length jacket on top. No under garments were worn. It was made of dark coloured fabric, flannel or serge, often trimmed with braid or embroidery. By 1860 the bloomer suit had become the standard bathing costume in both England and France. Unlike the sack, the wearer was able to swim in it.
In 1870 girls’ bathing costume trousers became straight and knee length rather than ankle length like those of their mothers. Again, dark colours were used so that the costume did not show the figure when wet. The neckline and decoration of women’s costumes followed fashionable daywear. By 1877 deep pink and blue flannel were popular, as were sailor collars, a fashion that would last into the 1900s. It also became the fashion for drawers to fasten below the knee and have a separate overskirt. Swimming clubs for girls started in the 1880s, coinciding with the decline of flannel costumes as they soaked up too much water and became very heavy. Serge and cotton twill became the more popular choices. In the 1890s there was a fashion for wearing stockings and bathing shoes with criss-cross lacing up to the knee. This was a fashion that lasted until about 1910.
Men’s Bathing Costumes
Men’s bathing costumes originated in France in the 1830s where mixed bathing had been accepted and had become the norm by the late 18th century. These first costumes were called caleçons and were very short-legged drawers held up with string at the waist. They were to appear in England in the 1940s. Usually they would be striped in broad bands of red and white. By 1860 half the men bathing would be wearing these whilst the other half, probably the older men, would still be naked. In the 1870s, when swimming became recognised as a sport, a one-piece men’s costume was made. The one-piece costume was knee length with short sleeves and it was easier, as well as less risky, to swim in than the shorts, which could fall down.
The Development of the Bathing Suit
20th Century Fashions
Women continued to wear variations on the tunic and bloomer two-piece until the 1920s using other materials such as taffeta, wool jersey, crepe de chine and cotton. By 1918 women’s costumes had lost their skirts. There were also sleeveless costumes and daring one-piece machine knitted wool costumes.
In the early 1920s either a one piece bathing costume or a tunic and bloomers were being worn by women. For the serious swimmer a costume of stockinet type fabric was worn consisting of knickers and a thigh length close-fitting tunic. This style often had shoulder straps, rather than sleeves. Both men’s and women’s bathing costumes of the 1920s began to show more flesh. By the late 1920s the backs in the women’s one-piece swimming costumes were lower than the fronts and the two-piece costumes of tunic and bloomers had almost disappeared. Men’s costumes had low necks and backs while the legs had reduced in length. The most fashionable colours were black, dark blue or maroon.
The 1930s saw backs on women’s costumes become even lower. The fashion was to have large parts of the fabric cut away, to reveal more of the body. Alternatives to thin straps were halter necks and straps that crossed at the back. The 1930s also saw the disappearance of the one-piece men’s costume in favour of trunks, which covered the navel and were held up by means of a belt.
Machine knitted wool took over from stockinet as the most popular fabric for bathing costumes, but in the late 1930s ruched cotton bathing costumes were also popular for women. This fashion was to continue into the 1940s and 1950s when ruching was used with brightly coloured fabrics. Meanwhile a new elasticated fabric was beginning to be used for swimwear called Lastex. By the end of the 1930s there was a two-piece costume, which consisted of separate brassiere and knickers, both of which were cut quite substantially – an absence of fabric that was to increase with the creation of the “bikini” in 1946.
In the 1950s one-piece strapless costumes were made possible by the introduction of nylon. Some of the costumes of this time had boned brassieres, and it became popular for both costumes and bikinis to have over-skirts. The 1960s and 1970s saw the development of polyamid and lycra making even skimpier costumes possible. In 1964 sportswear designer Rudi Gernreich introduced his topless bikini design. He also designed the ‘string’ in 1974 and the ‘thong’ in 1975. The alternative to the bikini in the 1970s was the one piece with high cut legs still popular today.
Men’s swimwear in the late 1980s saw a change from the tight fitting trunks of the 1960s and 1970s back to a looser fit short style, similar to those worn in other sports. Women’s costumes continue to be produced in a variety of styles and fabrics with a choice of both skimpy and more substantial costumes and bikinis available.
One of the most popular makers of bathing costumes was the American company Jantzen. Initially founded in 1910 as the Portland Knitting Company, they began making wool bathing costumes in 1913, which were soon nicknamed “Jantzens” after one of the directors. The company changed its name to Jantzen in 1918. The trademark logo of a red diving girl was first adopted in 1921, when Jantzen’s first national adverts appeared in Vogue and Life.
The women’s two-piece costume of the late 1930s was to make a comeback in 1946 but this time it was far from substantial and caused a sensation. It was called the bikini named after Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, where the U.S.military conducted the first under water atomic explosion.
This text was originally published on the Royal Pavilion and Museums’ main website.