The story of swimwear is one of changing shapes, attitudes and technology. Abigail Turner charts the evolution of swimming fashion.
Yorkshire, the birthplace of quintessentially British brand Marks & Spencer, is the ideal place to start a journey through the history of swimwear. The M&S Company Archive at the University of Leeds has everything from knitted woollen costumes from the 1930s to body-enhancing swimwear of the 1990s, exploring the story of swimwear through film, adverts and the garments themselves.
Leeds City Museums has been working with the M&S Archive on swimwear talks and displays, explaining the history of fashion, the influence of the changing seasons and the fascinating parallels between fashion and evolving society.
Curator of exhibitions Ruth Martin says: “The evolution of swimwear and the clothes we wear on holiday reflect some big changes in society over the years, particularly in our attitudes towards gender, propriety and body confidence.”
It was for medicinal reasons that the fashionable took to seawater. In the 19th century, taking a dip from bathing machines became popular, involving immersion but not swimming in the briny deep, clad in heavy silk or woollen swimsuits, as a cure for illness.
However, the 1900s brought a change in attitude. As mixed bathing became more acceptable during the Edwardian period, ladies took to walking more openly in their bathing costumes, although professional Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested in 1907 for appearing at Boston’s Revere Beach in a one-piece bathing suit that revealed her arms, legs and voluptuous body. She later launched her own line of one-piece bathing suits for women.
From 1910, one-piece bathing suits became more visible as more women wanted to participate in swimming and sporting hobbies. Swimming was introduced to the Olympic Games in 1912 for women contestants. In 1913 Vogue produced patterns for make-it-yourself costumes, to meet growing demand.
Caroline Brown, of Yorkshire-based vintage specialists House of Rose & Brown, an organiser of vintage events, says: “Swimsuits of the ’20s, and earlier, are rather rare to find these days, although it is a thrill when you do find them.
“Constructed from wool and designed to cover up more than they revealed, the thought of actually swimming in them is unappealing.”
By 1920, a beach outfit was vital to every wardrobe. There was a huge variety of styles and colours in swimwear. Bloomers were often used as part of the whole design and many suits were sleeveless, skirts became shorter and the waist was defined only by loose sashes or contrast piping.
Vogue in 1920 said: “The modern girl is triumphant. She can wear anything she wants to wear, but if she is wise, she will be careful not let her freedom go to her head. After all, the bathing suit tells a more honest story than any other form of dress.”
The 1930s saw another transformation in swimwear fashion. The tan became a status symbol, championed by Coco Chanel, as was the desire for a fit physique. Costumes became smaller, tighter and more revealing, so the body needed to look trimmer. Ruth Martin says: “Older swimsuits were far more restrictive and conservative, but as women in particular gained more control over the clothes they wore, so swimwear became much more dynamic, colourful and daring.”
Lastex and Contralex fabrics with elastic woven into them meant that curvier figures could appear more slender. “These rapidly shifting fashions and social norms encouraged designers and clothing manufacturers to become much more daring and creative, resulting in some of the stylish and beautiful outfits we see on the High Street today,” adds Ruth.
Swimwear has served throughout the century to establish and represent standards of beauty and morality. In the 1930s and ’40s Hollywood began to take advantage of the allure of the erotic bather. If Lara Turner, Jane Russell or Rita Hayworth were seen in the private pools of Los Angeles, that was what every woman wanted to be doing.
During the Second World War, tans were acquired while contributing to the war effort, digging potatoes or harvesting crops. British Vogue said: “With the tension of wartime living and the fatigue of wartime work… make the most of every opportunity to bask in the sun.” After 1945, as beaches reopened and seaside holidays became possible again, sea, sun, a tan and the right look became the recipe for an ideal post-war summer.
Swimwear not only traces modesty and beauty trends but also advancements in technology, sport and the fashionable look. The 1950s saw new fabrics and new methods of processing cotton. Un-crushable cotton became available, treated so that clothes would crease very little when folded and would drip dry when washed.
Swimwear also reflects the changing moods of society, most prominently seen in the 1960s. By the end of the decade, small bosoms were fashionable and all the bolstering disappeared as models such as Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton were plastered all over billboards, portraying a boyish figure and ironing board chest.
Caroline Brown says: “The general freedom of the 1960s in fashion and lifestyle meant that by the 1970s and ’80s swimsuits had veered heavily towards the low end of the taste and the skimpiest triangles to cover your modesty, as well as prints and colours and fabrics which are unmistakable of their eras – for example, the macramé bikinis in the ’70s and neon coloured synthetic sex bomb slinky swimsuits in the ’80s.”
If you want to see and maybe buy vintage and retro swimwear, head to Whitby for the annual Great Seaside Vintage Fair next month. “It is the only vintage fair with a sea view,” says Caroline Brown.
The Great Seaside Vintage Fair takes place at Whitby Pavilion on July 22-23.