10 Beach Looks and a History of the Swimsuit

Dare I say…dive in?


Imagine doing your grocery shopping in nothing but your bra, your underwear and a pair of sensible sneakers. Aside from your body breaking out in stress-hives, what do you think would happen?  How long do you think you could rummage around the bread aisle for your favorite 7-grain before the store manager gently asked if you were off your meds?

Now imagine migrating over to the produce in the same thing, but this time your underwear is made out of a very particular combination of nylon and spandex and on your feet are a pair of sandy flip flops and slung over your shoulder is a sandy beach towel. I’d venture to guess there would be nary a hive nor passive aggressive store manager in sight.

Context is everything, right? That which society deems appropriate in a given place during a given time is nothing if not a transient and subjective reflection of the current zeitgeist.

Swimwear is a particularly interesting study on this, because while you might think an outfit designed for exerting physical energy while submerged in a body of water would lean more on the utilitarian than the stylistic, I’m not sure any other article of clothing has undergone a larger transformation in Western society over the last 200ish years.

If you’re as curious as I am about how we went from beach gowns to strings up our butts, join me in unpacking the hot, steamy and uncomfy history of the bathing suit.

What to wear to the beach…

In 1772:

Forecast says it’s going to be a hot one, so might I suggest you grab your triple-layered gown in a light and airy fabric? Just make sure the hem is weighted so a man can’t take a suggestive peek at your ankle should the wind blow your way. All your skin should be covered save for a sliver of your face, which will surely be smiling through the sweat because you love the beach!

At least hypothetically. Since trains aren’t a thing yet, you’ve never been before.

[via Good Housekeeping from Getty Images]

In 1862:

Pair your nicest flannel collared dress with your nicest turkish bloomers to communicate you’re not only fun but layered. Although your arms can occasionally come out to play, they ought not to brag to your other hot and steamy appendages, like say, your feet, which should be covered at all times by simple or lace-up bathing slippers which your great-great-granddaughter will want in, like, 150 years. Moving easily is for suckers. And men.

Please wear a hat. Your head is too sexy for this world.

[via Fashion Era]

In 1912:


As beaches are getting more popular, the layered bloomer look is starting to feel a little burdensome, no? Slip into a single-piece bathing costume that cuts closer to your body. Take the one worn by Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman in the 1907 Olympics, for example.

You know, the one that got her arrested for indecent exposure but ultimately guided the progression of swimwear and enabled women all over the world to move their limbs whilst within the vicinity of water?

[via Wikipedia]

In 1933:

Now that the world doesn’t mind seeing the curve of your hip on a sunny afternoon, why not show a little more? It is war time after all, and less fabric means cost savings and corporeal comfort. If you’re careful to only show a hint of your stomach you might even try a two-piece, which is cheaper to produce.

Just don’t show your navel; it would drive your most oppressive dates up the wall.

[via Good Housekeeping from Getty Images]

In 1946:


I know you prefer to be ahead of the curve, so maybe throw on the revolutionary bikini introduced by designer Louis Réard. He named it after the Bikini Atoll and couldn’t get a model to wear it for its debut in Paris so he had to hire a stripper. Are you a stripper? Does your belly button need some sun?

If no and/or you prefer to play it safe, then consider a one-piece with feminine details like ruching or a sweetheart neckline, because figure flattery is all the rage right now. Not that you need it.

[via NY Daily News from Getty Images]

In 1954:

You should wear a bikini if it feels right! No one will give it a second thought after Brigitte Bardot wore one at Cannes. Bonus: designers are starting to use structures previously reserved for undergarments, so you’ll feel supported physically if not emotionally. (I mean…it’s the ’50s.) (And you’re a woman.)

[via Daily Mail from Getty Images]

In 1966:


If you love a stream but hate the mainstream then consider donning your old bloomers, because after the bikini made its magazine cover debut for Sports Illustrated‘s very first swimsuit issue, it’s officially the swimwear of the moment.

But you know what? Those bloomers were flannel (!) and it’s the ’60s! So just do it!

[via Sports Illustrated]

In 1975:

A model wearing a white belted swimsuit in Grecian-style folds, circa 1975. A photoshoot for the 'Daily Telegraph'. (Photo by Duffy/Getty Images)

Bikinis are still popular and getting smaller (string bikinis are great for fitting in and helping remove that pesky kernel from your teeth) but you know what would be cool? If you wore a daring one-piece that said “I’m fashion-forward and celebrating the sexual revolution one beach trip at a time.”

I wouldn’t mind seeing the entirety of your side-body.

[via Lulu’s]

In 1986:


That one-piece was cool but it had some diaper-ish undertones, so let’s sex it up a little bit with a high-cut almost-string bikini that will (upside!) look great below or on top of your spandex workout gear but will (downside!) also prompt the introduction of something you never ever ever asked for: the Brazillian wax.

I’m so sorry. But look how happy you are.

[via The Chive]

In 1997:

Nothing like an economic boom to give you some serious options. High-cut, low-cut, adjustable straps, side-boob, lifeguard one-piece, supermodel two-piece. The world is your oyster which is an especially appropriate metaphor here, don’t you think? But the real crowd-and-thigh-pleaser is your favorite skimpy red one-piece a la Baywatch.

Extra points if your run off into the sunset and don’t stop until 2016. See you out there!

[via Yahoo from Getty Images]


Get more Fashion ?
  • Don’t forget Rudi and the monokini!!

  • I love the return of the high-waisted one piece a la Baywatch. As someone who’s butt and hips form a perfect square that offers little shapeliness, the one piece gives illusion of having a divine derrière. Brb gonna run down the beach with Pam and The Hoff. 😀

    • Amelia Diamond

      I love the high one piece too!

  • Pam Dick

    Don’t know where you live but someone shopping for groceries in a bikini in my neighborhood would most certainly be asked to cover up.

  • Gabrielle

    oh! where do I buy a bikini à la Marilyn?

  • Aggie

    Doing your groceries in a bikini made me think of the best episode of Girls (I think Hannah gets kicked out?) I love the Baywatch trend but I don’t know if I would be comfortable pulling it off, does it tend to go up your butt a lot? (Genuine question because I can’t remember what it was like to wear a one piece as a child…

  • Remember about ten years ago or more when we all used to view Marilyn Monroe as ‘curvy’ and ‘voluptuous’ … fast forward through 10 years of obesity epidemic and she looks positively skinny now doesn’t she. Interesting how relatively works.

  • Lisa

    Don’t forget the romans that already wore bikinis, especially when doing sport!

  • Jay

    I personally think women from the 80s had the most beautiful body. Really sexy and full of grace. Visit http://www.jaylifeandstyle.com for fashion trends.