Why Today’s Women’s Swimwear Looks The Way It Does (A Historical Perspective)

Bikini, burkini, one piece, tankini – bathing suits for women come in many types and styles around the world.  How many do you own?

For most people, summer is not imaginable without at least one bathing suit, whatever style you prefer.

This is especially true if you’re a “water baby”; someone who loves to hang out at the beach or by the pool all summer long.  

While you might be well versed on today’s modern world of women’s bathing suits (at least as far as the western styles go), how much do you know about the history of everyone’s favourite summer garment?

Today’s Swimsuit Styles

You have to admit, people sometimes take what they have for granted. 

For instance, it is just normal to go to a store and look at the colourful display of stylish bathing suits, and simply enjoy being spoiled for options. 

Swimwear, these days, comes in such a fabulous array of styles, it’s no wonder people enjoy shopping for swim suits.

The industry revolving around women’s swimwear is super huge, with so many designs and brands being distributed world wide. 

The world of women’s swimwear is a beacon for designers who have an imaginative flair for originality.

We think it’s fair to say that the swimwear business is generally thought to be one of the more progressive fashion industries in the world, on average.

A creative designer can do so much with so little fabric, and there will be someone somewhere who appreciates it.

The Burkini Situation

As relaxed as people seem in North America when it comes to what we wear to the beach, with our acceptance of near nudity in most places, there is still a lot of controversy in some countries if you don’t follow the rules.

For those who live in the U.S.A., in the 21st century, you might think that what you wear to the beach is totally up to you, and you can wear as skimpy a bathing suit as you like.

While that may be fair game here, did you know that in some places in the world, the opposite problem is taking place.  Too many clothes at the beach!

Recently, the world was debating the influence and message women wearing burkini’s are sending, to the point where in some places (like France), the burkini has been banned.

For those who don’t know, this is women’s swimwear popular in the Muslim world, which covers most of the body of the woman wearing it.

The debate that’s going on currently is actually quite unusual in the context of world history.  Too many clothes at the beach?  What is that all about?

In western countries, the opposite applies, where the covering up of skin at a beach or pool is seen as impractical and ridiculous.  In eastern countries, women must still wear full coverage at the beach. 

Burkinis are actually a compromise, compared to what some women choose to wear at the beach.

Swimsuits have become, in the 21st century, a barometer for how “modern” a society is, or isn’t.

According to western society, wearing less is normal, if you’re a woman or man.  In the east, wearing more to cover up is the standard, especially if you are a woman.  In fact, it’s not just the standard, but the strictly enforced law.

This is because nudity is equated with promiscuity, and certain countries are frown upon the idea that women can be so revealing as to wear almost nothing. 

This idea of “covering up” is mind-boggling to those who live in the west, but the irony is that, even in the west, we prohibit by law the practice of being fully naked at a beach, unless it is designated as such.

We allow women to wear as little as possible, as long as it’s not nothing.

The other funny thing about wearing skimpy swimsuits is that this is much more in line with what humans did 1000 years ago, even though it is seen as progress today.

Nudity and Ancient Times

In ancient times, it was perfectly normal to bathe naked publicly, and no special garments were worn to cover up genitals or breasts.  In fact, it was the norm to let everything hang out, whether you were young or old, man or woman.

This is because the idea of a “bathing suit” hadn’t crossed anyone’s mind yet.  Not for moral reasons, not for the purpose of creating an industry around it.  No, the concept just wasn’t on peoples’ minds at that time.

It is true that in ancient times, in Europe, for instance, people were not shy about showing off their bodies in general, especially when it came to bathing or swimming. 

It was a more naive time, in a sense similar to the Garden of Eden, where people had yet to acquire the feelings of guilt and shame associated with being nude.

Back then, it was only natural for people – men and women – to exercise and bathe with no clothes on, judging, for example, by the murals we see all over Rome, Greece, and Egypt.

So you might think, if everyone was naked all the time at these public bathes, why wouldn’t they be having sex?  Well, guess what?  Sometimes they were!

Consider this: in ancient times, in certain parts of the world, it was very, very hot – temperature wise, that is.  And certain types of materials, like say spandex, were far from being invented.  This “wonder” fiber wasn’t invented until 1959.

In a lot of cases, around the world, back in ancient times, nudity at a beach or bath house was simply an accepted practice.  And, depending on which part of the world we are speaking about, and when, sex was a lot more “open” than it is even today.

This is interesting because some might say that sex has never been more “open” than it is currently right now in North America, since many people consider modern society to have no moral compass whatsoever, and well on its way to plunging headlong into one big hellfire scorched den of iniquity.

For instance, to back up this claim, we only have to look at how widespread pornography has become in western society to see how much we, as a people, lack in any kind of restraint.

But back to our more “open” ancient descendants…what kinds of things made them more “open” then your average 21st century westerner?  How is that even possible?

Well, for example, it might surprise you to learn that homosexuality in ancient Rome was openly accepted, as were commonplace sexual relations between people of drastically different ages.

At the same time as ancient cultures may have been more open socially and sexually, there was a fairly pronounced lack of hygiene compared to today’s standards, mainly due to lack of information.

That said, as societies evolved globally, and got more organized, intellectual, and industrialized, nudity became less and less accepted, and sexuality was generally heading in a more oppressed direction.

Bathing And Hygiene In The Middle Ages

In the 21st century, you walk to your bathroom in your bathrobe, strip down and enjoy a hot shower, or relax in a nice bubble bath.  Even if you’re relatively poor, you still probably have a bathroom and running water.

Just 6 centuries ago, that was something a person could not imagine in their wildest dreams. Taking care of personal hygiene was something much more ‘’complicated’’, from our modern standpoint.

If you wanted to be extra clean, and because private bathroom facilities were not really available back then, a person would go to a public bath house, where you would get to swim in hot water with many other people of the same gender.

The mixing of genders, or mixed gender bathing, by the Middle Ages, was prohibited.  Gone were the days of men and women hanging out naked and sometimes having sex publicly, as they once did in days of yore (1st century Rome, that is).

In fact, the mixing of certain types of people had long since been prohibited, and entry depended on your membership status, race, religion, and other factors.

Here at your typical 16th century European bath house you would have yourself a good time socializing with your friends and neighbours, not really thinking about the cleanliness of the water per se. 

This “bath house” concept was essentially the prototype for the modern public pool, although it was generally reserved for adult men only.  The idea of an all female bath house was not totally unheard of in Europe, however.

Bath houses were different from today’s baths in that people went to these public to get clean, despite the fact that these baths didn’t contain any chlorine to disinfect the water. 

Meaning, by today’s standards, that bath water back in 18th and 19th century Europe was probably pretty damn dirty, since to clean these giant baths, they had to do it usually by emptying and refilling them. 

By our standards today, this isn’t a sanitary way to clean a giant public bath / swimming pool.

Take a look at this old Roman bath located in Bath, England.  Now imagine it with 100 men swimming in it.  How clean do you think this would have been?

Some say that in the old days, having a bath at one of these places meant you’d be dirtier after the bath than when you got in it.

For the record, chlorine wasn’t used Brown University used it to clean their pool in 1910 for sanitation purposes.

The Very First Bathing Suit For Women

We can say that first real bathing suit for women, made for purposes of bathing in it, was not what you might think.

The very first bathing suits were big and stiff pieces of cloth, covering the entire body.  The style was a little bit going swimming in a giant potato sack, wrapped in a duffel bag.

These bathing suits were, quite literally, suits, and the only acceptable way women could be allowed to bathe.

The purpose of these first swimsuits for women was to cover the body completely, and reveal as little as possible. They were stiff, and the heavy cloth would not float in water as linens of poor people would.

In this way, poor people who were forced to swim in their clothes (ie. night gown) out of necessity may have been much luckier than some woman who owned a brand new “potato sack” swim suit.

And if that sounds exhausting and uncomfortable, it was.  That said, the women of the 18th century, were supposed to grin and bare it.  They probably didn’t grin much, but they had to bare it, OR ELSE.  It was better than never going swimming or bathing ever again, perhaps.  

And we wonder why women like their trips to the spa so much these days, having had to go swimming and bathing for centuries wearing the most uncomfortable clothes ever.

Here is an excerpt from The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, a memoir by Tobias Smollett, to give you a sense of women in these times.

“The ladies wear jackets and petticoats of brown linen, with chip hats, in which they fix their handkerchiefs to wipe the sweat from their faces; but, truly, whether it is owing to the steam that surrounds them, or the heat of the water, or the nature of the dress, or to all these causes together, they look so flushed, and so frightful, that I always turn my eyes another way.”

You can just imagine these poor women, visiting the beaches of Europe and the United States, dressed from head to toe in clothing that would be better suited to wearing on a cold autumn day, rather than a hot summer day where you’re expected to jump in the water and frolic.

Some of these full bathing suit / dresses even had weights sewn into them, just to make them even more horrific.

The Restriction of Nudity in the 19th Century

As the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries passed, both European and North American societies were changing rapidly, heading into a time where “covering up” was the norm, especially for women, and particularly at beaches and pools.  

If you think that men were running around in speedos in the 19th century, think again.  Although women’s bathing suits were definitely ghastly, men’s suits weren’t exactly skimpy either.

There was still a trend towards wearing somewhat matching swim attire.

If you, for instance, headed to the beach with your family back in, say, 1875, you would probably all be wearing something similarly uncomfortable.

Going to the beach was not unheard of back then.  Plenty of people visited the beach on a regular basis.

Not every adult hung around in dirty bath houses, but, what was worn to the beach was certainly not what we now would consider very comfortable.

What triggered this seemingly illogical choice back 2 centuries ago to cover oneself up so much at a place where it makes more sense to be wear less?

For one thing, industrialization was, throughout the 19th century, expanding at an unprecedented pace. 

New industries and inventions were literally emerging out of nowhere, and this created in us, a desire to have the items they produced, no matter how crazy, useless, or ultimately practical they might be. 

For instance, what was new as of the 1800’s?  Just a few things…batteries, trains, raincoats, typewriters, electromagnets, and literally hundreds of other important life-changing inventions now existed when they didn’t before.

Also, more human migration than ever before was taking place, in the 16th and 17th centuries.

With people now spreading across the globe so quickly, populations were diversifying and growing in numbers, and systems of belief were being rapidly traded in for other, newer systems of belief.

In the chaos of these times, the age old concept of slavery was finally beginning to become less popular on a global scale, although it was still practiced in certain places.

Two forms of slavery included the ownership of black slaves who were taken from Africa over the previous centuries, and also husbands ruling over their wives and daughters, a more subtle form of enslavement.

The idea of women being treated as property was called coverture, stemming from the idea that man and wife were legally one person, leading to the legal “possession” of women by their husbands.

It seemed that even as humans were co-mingling ethnically, there were still plenty of barriers between people of different races and genders at this time.

As you can imagine, the idea of a modern woman’s bikini would not have been acceptable in the 1800’s, with so much racism and repression happening everywhere in the world.

It wasn’t until 1946 that the first modern looking “bikini” arrived on the scene, being modelled by Micheline Bernardini, in a famous photo session.

Oddly enough, the exercise clothing of women worn in 3rd and 4th century Rome looked more akin to the modern bikini than any of the swimwear women were forced to wear in the centuries leading up to the 20th century.

20th Century Women’s Swimwear

At the end of 19th-century, swimsuits became shorter and had got shorter sleeves and some seem to have lost them completely.

At the start of the 20th century a synchronized swimmer, Anette Kellerman, popularized form-fitting swimsuit for women that looked a lot like some of the male swimsuits of the time.

This bathing suit was body-hugging, short legged, and sleeveless – scandalous indeed but much more practical for purposes of swimming in water. 

Female olympic swimmers first wore these suits, which somewhat resemble scuba gear of today.

Like always, those who cared to ‘protect the morality’ of others (ie. mostly women) protested, but women seemed to have lucked out, relatively speaking, in those pre-World War 1 days of needing conserve materials due to an under-developed economy.

It seems that even bikini creator Jacques Heim made the two piece women’s swimwear as such do to needing to conserve materials.

Hence, the skimpiness of the bikini, which was first called the atome by Heim, and then dubbed the “bikini” by Louis Reard after the Bikini Atoll, some islands that the U.S. military was testing nuclear weapons on (*location pictured below).

Before the imminent invention of the bikini in 1946, there was a proliferation of two-piece swimsuit-type outfits that preceded the actual bikini that were being used by burlesque dancers in the 1920’s, as new materials like rayon and silk began being implemented to make various types of outfits clothes.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1915 that the term “bathing suit” was coined by Jantzen Knitting Mills, who were developing new swimwear at the time.

Here is a clip from a movie in 1924, showing the “Sennett Bathing Beauties”, a group of sassy ladies who enjoyed frolicking at the beach (Thelma Hill, Elsie Tarron, Cecille Evans, Eugenia Gilbert).

At the same time as all of this was happening, there was a trend towards tanning that began around this time, with people – specifically women – begin to stay out in the sun longer for the purpose of tanning, which almost required – no begged – for some type of outfit to reveal the skin to the sun’s rays.

Increase in Popularity of Sunbathing in the 1920’s

Sunbathing became increasingly popular in the early to mid 20th century, and these two-piece swimsuits (the “bikinis”) we mentioned previously that were once worn mainly burlesque dancers at the time, but were now being embraced by modern women everywhere, proved practical for this new favourite activity called “sunbathing”.

Famous fashion designer, Coco Chanel, famously was sunburnt once in the 1920’s while visiting the French Riviera, and this made fashion history as she managed to start a fad that turned into a worldwide obsession.  The first suntanning oil was created by Jean Patou in 1927, called “Huile de Chaldee”.

Actress Josephine Baker, a dark-skinned singer from Paris, also pushed the trend onwards, with fans wanting to copy her skin tone, not to mention her outfits, to some extent.

The Dawn of Celebrity Culture

Movies that were made during these decades became a great tool that formed peoples opinion’s and views on fashion, and so modern marketing was born.

People in modern society just had to look and act like the stars on the big screen, whatever they were doing, saying, or wearing.

Filmmakers did not shy away from making actresses of the time more provocative, and, in that way, influencing the direction of fashion tremendously.

In the 1930’s, new materials were developed that proved very useful when it came to the design of bathing suits, such as nylon (1935), polyester (1941), and later spandex (1959), which were more form-fitting and comfortable.

The genius of these materials lay in the fact that they did not hold on to water and could be designed in so many different ways as to be practically endless in terms of possible designs for swim suits.

One of the first nudist colonies cropped up in the mid-30’s – that’s worth mentioning as well.  Times were definitely changing and the change wasn’t stopping.

While the period before World War 2 was an innovative and brave period for designers and filmmakers, the bikini as we know it only arrived at the end of the war, and, from there, became more normalized in western society.

Again, the war did have an affect on bathing suits at the time, as materials were needed for the war effort, so the bikini does, in a way, owe a thanks to that depletion of resources for its existence.

Since the 1950’s, the development of swimwear has not rested on its laurels.

In 60’s we got our first tankinis hitting the scene.

By the 1970’s, nude beaches were all the rage across North America, and they’re just as popular today if not more so.


Just think, after all the repression that has been experienced by women throughout history, we, as a modern society, finally have seemed to have reached the point where we can enjoy our bodies, without guilt or shame. 

This may not be 100% true that we can do this, and wear what we want and look how we please, but this reality is more true now than it ever has been, so one can only be grateful for that. 

So, the next time you are at the mall, and looking through all of those beautiful bathing suits, just remember what it took to get this far.

In other words, your great, great grandma might have had to wear an oversized potato sack to the beach, and she wore that stupid thing, in effect, to allow all of us to dress pretty much however we want.


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