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      Other Interesting Histories > Sun, Fun, and Wool?: The Surprising History of Swimsuits

Sun, Fun, and Wool?: The Surprising History of Swimsuits
The history of swimsuits begins, like so many other histories, in the era of classical civilization. During the centuries of the Greek and Roman empires, public bathing was a common practice, and, while clothing was not always required in order to bathe in public (nude bathing was quite common in ancient Greece), some type of swimwear was generally necessary. Historians believe that both Greek and Roman citizens wore toga-like swimming costumes when indulging in public bathing, although wall paintings from a classical Sicilian villa reveal that bikini-style swimsuits may also have been worn. While public bathing, and thus, the swimsuit, were both incredibly popular in the times of ancient Greece and Rome, the practice of swimming and bearing one’s flesh in public would greatly fall out of style in Europe, following the fall of the Roman empire.

During the Middle Ages, bathing was seen as a practice that should rarely be indulged in. In these almost suffocating Christian times, it is hardly surprising that public bathing was especially abhorred. The history of the swimsuit enters a deep lull during this time period. However, swimsuits do manage to enter back into popular fashion and design during the 18th century in Europe. It was during this time period that visiting spas (i.e. natural springs) began to be seen as a means of displaying wealth and luxury. Spas and resort towns began to emerge all throughout France and England, and the swimsuit was reborn out of necessity.

The act of public bathing began to gain in popularity in the United States at the beginning of the 19th century. Founded as the country was upon Protestant morality, the problem of properly covering one’s body when swimming resulted in a rather cumbersome swimsuit solution. This obsession with modest and morality especially affected women, who were forced to enjoy their time at the beach or in other public baths in heavy woolen dresses. Wool became the fabric of choice due to its ability to continuously conceal the skin, even when wet. As impractical and inconvenient as these woolen dresses were for swimming, they remained quite popular for the majority of the 19th century.

In the early 1900s, women had grown quite tired of heavy woolen swimsuits, and fashion designers were quick to respond with a more convenient style of swimsuit. The swimsuit of the early 1900s consisted of a leotard-style top, made of tight, form-fitting material. Accessories included shorts, bathing socks, and a hat. This swimsuit, in revealing the arms and knees, reached levels of public skin exposure that had been unheard of since Roman times.

As the 1920s brought expanded views of the roles of women in both the workforce and the family, the swimsuit changed, also. Swimsuit designers, inspired by dressmakers of the time, created a flirty swimsuit that closely resembled a woman’s party dress. The swimsuit of the 1920s was tighter than its earlier counterpart and consisted of a short skirt that left the legs entirely bare for the first time. Swimsuit designers in the 1930s and early 1940s would build upon this design and create swimsuits with even lower necklines. Such designers abandoned the concept of the skirt, choosing to pair tank-style tops with tight, belted shorts, instead.

Swimsuit fashion design slowed somewhat in the 1940s, as WWII consumed the world and time and fabric were increasingly rationed. In the post-war world, however, one of the greatest innovations in swimwear would come about in 1946 with the introduction of the bikini. Models and average women alike were soon parading about runways and beaches in bikinis, the smallest swimsuits yet imagined.

The original bikinis of the 1940s and 1950s were fairly modest in cut and design. They were generally cut above the navel, and tops modestly covered and supported the bust. The decade of the 1960s, however, with its sexual revolution and renewed views of women and sexuality, would drastically change the bikini, as well as the one-piece swimsuit. For example, it was in the 1960s that the short-lived, but very shocking, monokini (topless swimsuit) was designed. In later decades, as designers built upon the foundation of the 1960s, one-piece swimsuits and bikinis would become increasingly more revealing in their design. In the 1970s and 1980s, the string bikini and thong bikini were revealed to the world, pushing the levels of public exposure to previously unheard of extremes. More recent one-piece swimsuits include revealing cutouts that leave very little to the imagination.

As the swimsuit has cycled from the revealing, bikini-style suits of ancient Greece and Rome, to the heavy woolen swim dresses of the Victorian era, and then back to the incredibly revealing bikinis and one-piece swimsuits of recent years, human skin has increasingly become open to public exposure. This exposure has inspired both shock and delight in the reactions of people throughout the world. In the future, the swimsuit will likely continue to push the envelope of public exposure and create further waves of shock and delight.

Article provided courtesy of Swimsuit Style.
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