Swimwear trends from the past 100 years

How did we get from the cumbersome bathing suits of yore to the barely there bikinis of today? Here, we chart the history of swimwear from the start of the 20th century.

Early 20th century bathing suits were exactly that – woollen all-in-ones that extended from neck to knees with a skirt worn on top to disguise ladies’ silhouettes. But by the end of the decade a (slightly) more streamlined suit allowed for easier swimming.

By the 1920s, one-piece jersey bathing suits were getting shorter and clingier, inspired by the French ‘maillot.’ Some women still chose to wear more modest two-pieces, however, meaning a swim dress worn over shorts topped off with a rubber swim cap.

Read: The scandalous history of the bikini

1930s and ’40s
Designs became more creative in the 1930s with the arrival of stretchy ‘lastex’ fabric and dyes that wouldn’t fade in the sun. Brightly coloured halter neck and racer back swimsuits that exposed more skin were in vogue as the fashion for sunbathing took off. In 1945, French engineer Louis Reard introduced his game-changing bikini, so called because he expected its impact to be as explosive as the nuclear tests taking place at Bikini Atoll. The ground-breaking design gradually started to gain popularity as Hollywood sirens were seen in two-pieces on the silver screen.

The one-piece still reigned supreme in the 1950s, when an hourglass figure was the shape women aspired to. Corseted and padded swimsuits sucked in the waist while emphasising the bust, with strapless and sweetheart necklines all the rage.

Read: How to style and rock a kaftan

1960s and ’70s
While swimwear evolution was gradual in the first half of the 20th century, the 1960s saw a sea change in terms of what we wore on the shore. Perhaps signalled by Brian Hyland’s ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’ becoming a worldwide hit in 1960, during the subsequent 10 years swimsuits got even skimpier, bikinis were widely embraced, and the introduction of Lycra meant the end of swimwear that sagged in the sea.

The athletic aesthetic of the 1980s lead to a penchant for sporty swimwear styles, with attention-seeking neon colours, tiny triangle bikini tops and high-cut thong bottoms de rigueur.

Read: Should you ever bin the bikini?

1990s to now
The 1990s most iconic swimwear came courtesy of TV smash hit Baywatch, which saw its female stars (including Pamela Anderson) clad in high-leg, low-cut swimsuits, running in slow-motion towards stranded swimmers. During the 2000s, the one-piece fell out of fashion somewhat, but we’re now seeing a return to Baywatch-style cossies and cut-out swimwear that results in some interesting tan lines.

What do you think of the swimsuits of today? Which style do you like the most? Let us know in the comments section below.

– With PA

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Written by Katie Wright

Fashion and beauty editor at the Press Association.