A Quick Dip Into the History of Women’s Swimwear: Part 1
After a particularly cold winter here in New York, “swimsuit season” is officially upon us, leading millions of women to contemplate ways to reveal their skin while still maintaining a delicate balance of modesty, functionality, and style. Of course, the plight of today’s swimwear shopper is nothing new: bathing suits have always been influenced by both fashion trends and socio-cultural factors. Perhaps more than any other type of garment, swimsuits can tell a lot about the body ideals and moral values of a society at any given time, making them invaluable resources for dress historians and cultural anthropologists.
From wool bloomers to spandex bikinis, The New School Archives and Special Collections contain a plethora of design materials that can help trace the evolution of women’s swimwear in the Western world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A brief look at some of these materials allows us to better appreciate the diversity of swimwear styles that are available today, and perhaps wonder how designs will continue to evolve now that more and more women are willing to bare (almost) everything.
As a fashion history lover, it’s hard not to become enamored with The New School Archives’ Fashion print scrapbooks. The collection’s eighteen boxes consist of more than ten thousand fashion prints dating from the early 1800s through 1913, which is enough to satiate anyone’s interest in nineteenth and early twentieth century garments and accessories. The prints were originally published in American and French pictorial magazines, and were likely assembled by early Parsons instructors or librarians as a reference for students studying costume design. (Talk about a dream job!)
I came across the image above one day while looking through this wonderful collection and was amazed by the thought of these women going underwater in so many layers of garments. This selection of “Costumes de Baigneuses” (or “Bathing Costumes”) from 1875 provides a pretty good idea of the arduous circumstances that women were required to go through in order to take a dip during this time in history.
Swimming wasn’t really considered a leisure activity until the mid 1800s, when new railway systems provided increased access to seaside resorts. Even then, the work that went into maintaining a woman’s chastity at the beach makes it hard to imagine that it was considered a leisurely pastime at all! The strange contraption seen on the right side of this image is what is known as a “bathing machine.” At the time, men and women were not permitted to swim in close proximity to each other at the beach, and bathing machines were used to ensure that men really couldn’t catch a glance of any bathing beauties. The machine was actually nothing more than a wooden box where women changed from their street clothes into bathing clothes, which looked something like the ensembles shown above. The wooden box was then pulled towards the water, where women were allowed to be released and splash about in their weighty swimwear. (More information about the woes of bathing machines can be found here.)
This second image–also found in The New School Archives’ fashion print scrapbooks–depicts swimwear from 1899, which appears to be slightly more sporty and very Gibson Girl-esque. Women and men were finally allowed to intermingle on the beach, but the sight of a kneecap or shoulder was still far too scandalous for most people. Even in 1907, Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman (the first woman to swim across the English Channel) was arrested in Boston for indecency when she dared to wear a form-fitting, one-piece swimsuit, which was possibly the same one that she is shown wearing here. Fortunately, fashion was about to catch up with Kellerman and her scandalizing swimsuit.
The swimwear industry was given a huge boost in the 1920s due to the new craze for suntanned skin, which signified that you had time to enjoy leisurely activities and were, therefore, wealthy and fashionable. By the mid 1920s, the tunic and bloomer swimsuits were replaced by more minimal all-in-one designs, which were similar for both men and women. The sleeves were eliminated and the trunks were shortened, creating the most “liberating” swimsuits in modern Western history (although their heavy knitted fabrics were still not conducive for actual swimming). The image above (found in the Parsons School of Design Alumni Association records) shows a group of bathing students from the New York School of Fine and Applied Art (later Parsons School of Design.) The photo is a perfect representation of how similar male and female swimsuits could be.
French designers such as Jean Patou and Elsa Schiaparelli introduced patterns and bright colors into women’s swimsuits, further distancing modern swimwear from the relatively dreary suits of Victorian times. Soon, the post-war boom brought more time for leisure activities, as well as increasingly “provocative” swimsuits.
Fast-forward to the mid-twentieth century. The ladylike silhouette of the late 1940s corresponded with swimwear that highlighted a woman’s curves and revealed (gasp!) full arms and legs. An increased importance in functionality was also placed on swimwear, which was now made in a variety of lighter fabrics and less-restricting styles.
Fashion designer (and Parsons alum!) Claire McCardell was at the forefront of the newly embraced “American Look” around the time of World War II, which was defined by simplicity and functionality. One of her most iconic pieces was the “diaper” swimsuit, as well as a series of playsuits that allowed women to frolic on the beach with style. The image above dates from 1955 and depicts a young Parsons student fitting a model with a playsuit, which looks remarkably similar to the playsuits that McCardell designed in the 1940s. A similar piece is currently displayed on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website, where it is described as emulating the “style of non-Western untailored clothing that gyrates around the body.” (An even more similar piece can be found here.) Although it is uncertain who this design student is and if they were influenced by McCardell, who taught at Parsons during this time, one thing remains true: such a scantily clad woman would have certainly caused a few fainting spells back in Anne Kellerman’s day!
In the immortal words of Diana Vreeland, “The bikini is the most important thing since the atom bomb.” In typical Vreeland fashion, this statement is extremely hyperbolic, but it should be noted that the skin-baring swimsuit style was indeed newsworthy when French engineer Louis Réard first introduced it to the world in 1946. According to fashion legend, he choose the name because he thought it would create an “explosive” effect on fashion, much like the recent atomic tests at Bikini Atoll. It did make quite a splash, but the style was not widely accepted until much later.
The lovely two-piece swimsuit illustration above is from 1959, which is around the time when such swimwear was finally being embraced by the mainstream. (Keep in mind the song “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” by Brian Hyland was released in 1960, and the lyrics prove that it was still a shocking fashion choice for some!)
The illustration is by Esta Nesbitt, a favorite here at The New School Archives for her gorgeous illustrations and unique ability to capture feminine beauty in a variety of ways. (Check out our online collection of Nesbitt’s work to see why she is so adored!) Although the ensemble still seems relatively demure to today’s standards, it may have seemed like a risky choice for some women at the time.
In the following decades, the “sexual revolution” would have a profound effect on what women wore to swim. Stay tuned for Part 2 to see what comes next!
List of Figures:
Fig. 1: “Costumes de Baigneuses,” 1875, Fashion print scrapbooks, circa 1800-1913, KA.0091, box OSx-14, folder 3, Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Design Archives, Parsons The New School for Design, New York, New York.
Fig. 2: “Costumes et Coiffures de Bains de Mer,” 1899, Fashion print scrapbooks, circa 1800-1913, KA.0091, box OSx-14, folder 6, Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Design Archives, Parsons The New School for Design, New York, New York.