Swimming costumes; a history of ridiculous design

Swimming Costumes; A History of Ridiculous Design

Swimwear has a history peppered with outlandish mistakes. It’s hard to find an area of fashion where the costume design has been so absolutely unsuited to the purpose intended.

In antiquity they had the right idea. Bathing was segregated and nude; akin to a group bath. There was a brief dip into swimwear: a wall mosaic from the 4th Century shows girls dressed in «bikinis». The look didn’t last.

In the dark and middle ages nobody bathed at all. There are certainly no records of any special swimming costumes worn for bathing, and in Europe, «bath houses» went out with the Romans.

Swimming reappeared as a sport in the 19th Century. Men wore long, fitted woolen one piece suits, looking a bit like long underwear and no doubt itchy, but reasonably practical to swim in. This look lasted a century, getting shorter and a bit more colourful by the 1920s.

The girls finally got into the water for fun in Victorian times. This was an age when modesty and decorum took precedence over practicality. Ladies wore cumbersome and dangerously heavy bathing gowns, the strict morality of the time ensuring flesh was covered, curves were obscured and the thick, black, woolen garment was not see-though when wet. Lead weights in the hem of the gown stopped the dress floating up in the water.

Recreational swimming gained popularity when the railroads started transporting families to the coast. «Bathing machines» meant girls and women could change and submerge in the sea without the titillating exposure of nude skin. The dress evolved into a two piece suit; a long sleeved gown to the knees, plus long pantaloons.

The wonderful Annette Kellerman shocked the world in Boston in 1907 by swimming in a revolutionary jersey sleeveless tank-suit, revealing her arms and legs. She was arrested for indecency.

However, she promoted the new style of swimwear for women and «Annette Kellermans» were the first modern girls’ swimsuits. In 1926 Gerturde Ederle swum the English Chanel and girls now «swam» rather than «bathed».

These early women’s costumes were fairly androgynous, albeit practical. In the 1930s came the feminisation of the swimsuit. Costumes got impractical again when Hollywood introduced bathing beauties into films; Esther Williams wore figure hugging costumes, the new stretch fabrics may have helped movement but the sequins and mermaid tail must have been tricky.

In the 1940s corsets made a comeback and women were strapped, boned and cupped into desirable shapes. New fabrics such as stretch Lastex and elastic nylon combined with cotton to enhance curves. Zips pulled it all together.

Revolution came again in 1946 with Heim and Reard’s bikinis: «smaller than the smallest bathing suit in the world,» although these guys would be shocked at just how much smaller the bikini could get.

For the next half a century the only style change in swimwear was the concept that less is more. Lycra came with the 60s and the stretch meant small scraps of fabric could stay up, more or less. The 1960 hit by Bryan Hyland «Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini» says it all.

Swimwear styles in the past had been silly, some putting their wearers at risk of drowning. But nothing did so much long term health damage as the look that came next: the thong. Two decades of sun worship and ultra tanning and near naked bodies soaking up cancer on the beach.

Surfers took over next and the thongs (thankfully) were covered with board shorts for both the guys and girls. Cancer clinics world wide are grateful for the fashionable rash shirt; a big step in putting melanoma out of fashion.

Carol Wior deserves a mention as the Slimsuit inventor (all hail!) and cozzies for competitive swimmers have made massive advances over the last decade with performance fabrics helping slash race times in the pool.

My prediction for the next decade is that swimming costumes will find a happy balance. They will use fabulous fabrics for stretch and performance, that hold muscle and enhance swimming ability, prevent sun damage and in styles that will be both flattering and practical.

Unfortunately, this happy state wont last. Another mad combination of social morality and fashion will produce something as impractical and ridiculous as the designs we’ve seen in the past.

So watch out for the perfect swimsuit, coming soon. And stockpile, to see you past the ridiculous designs that follow.

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