tHe HisTORy Of THe SwImSUiT

Why one-pieces remain our one true love

Words by Charlie Newman

Annette Kellerman, 1905

The return of the notoriously nation-gripping Love Island onto our screens inevitably marks the reprise of swimwear. And, whether it's itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny, complete with cut-outs, streamlined, frilled, patterned or bedazzled, there’s a one-piece out there for you.

With endless streams of swimsuit styles now available, it’s easy to forget that once upon a time swimsuits were in fact illegal. We have the Australian silent film star and professional swimmer, Annette Kellerman, to thank for changing things. In 1905, Kellerman sewed black stockings onto her swimsuit after it was deemed too revealing to wear whilst performing in front of the British Royal family. In a later competition in Boston, she was arrested for indecent exposure. Thankfully the judge overruled it, agreeing with Kellerman that she could not compete in such impractical attire.


Five women walking arm-in-arm on the beach wearing wool bathing suits,  1925

Prior to Kellerman, we can chart the origins of swimwear back to the mid-1800s. The industrial revolution enabled trips to the seaside, encouraging people to swim for leisure and health benefits. However, bathing costumes would be near unrecognisable from their equivalent today. They consisted of bloomers worn underneath a woollen, flannel or canvas oversized dress with a nautical nod in the collar detail. The dress was oversized so as not to cling to a woman’s body and the fabric was purposely thick to ensure it would not grow transparent in the water. Sounds appealing right?!

Woman having her swimsuit measured for length violations on a Washington DC beach, 1922

Vogue Cover, July 1927 

Some bathing costumes even had weighted hems to guarantee they would not ride up whilst wading through water. And, if this wasn’t enough, you could pair it with knee-high socks. Later, during the 1900s, bathing machines (wooden huts on wheels that were pulled to shore by horses) made a regular appearance on the beach, giving women a place to change privately – no nifty knicker trick (if you know, you know) or towel wrap required.

By the dawn of the 1920s, bearing a tan was no longer synonymous with outdoor labour but exotic travel. Fashion followed suit in 1932, when Elsa Schiaparelli was so devoted to avoiding tan lines that she patented her backless bathing suit with built-in bra. Then, illustrator Pierre Brissaud’s July cover of the 1927 issue of Vogue catapulted the bathing suit onto the international stage. And yet, in this iconic cover, all you see is a headshot and snippet of the suit's straps. Modesty was still prized, after all –‘swimsuit police’ patrolled beach shores during this era, measuring the length of swimsuits.


Belted one-piece jersey bathing suits with stripes on designed by Lucien Lelong, 1929

But of course, as soon as you censor something it only becomes more more fashionable. By the mid-fifties, swimsuits were judged in beauty pageants across the globe and Vogue announced that bathing attire was officially a “state of dress not undress” – a symbol of power. Design pioneer Coco Chanel led the way with her original monochromatic bouclé one-piece, while other fashion houses followed suit due to the rise of ready-to-wear. And, when Baywatch first aired in 1989, the world's fascination with swimsuits arguably reached its absolute peak.

Ultimately, the development of the swimsuit goes hand-in-hand with women’s liberation and access to choice. So, whether you opt for the sustainably savvy swimwear at Medina, or stand out of the crowd in an Adriana Degreas number, know this: you've got well over a century of history behind you.

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