Most of us put on a pair of swim trunks or a bikini and head to the beach without much thought – but how did we, as a society, decide that this was the go-to swimming attire? And is this always what people have worn?
While swimming has been part of human culture for thousands of years, what we wear while we splash around in the water has changed a lot in that time.
From swimming with no clothes at all, to heavy wool gowns, to the itsy bitsy bikinis and speedos we see on beaches today, let’s take a look at the history of swimsuits in the western world, and what people were wearing to swim 300 years ago!
Starting in Ancient Times
First, we’re traveling back to ancient Rome. Public bath houses were a huge part of society, where people went to relax and socialize. In addition to smaller plunge pools of different temperatures, some bath houses had larger pools where people could swim back and forth, all in the nude.
Sometimes, women would wear a pair of briefs and a bandeau top if they wanted to cover up, but for the most part no clothes were needed.
Ancient Romans and Greeks often used swimming as part of military training as well. And young boys could be found swimming in local rivers on hot days.
Even through the Middle Ages, most people swam naked at indoor bath houses or out in the open air. Sometimes, they’d wrap a garment around their groin for a little extra modesty or strip down to their underwear, but mostly they let it all hang out.
In the Renaissance period, swimming wasn’t considered a good or moral thing to do. Most of the time people only swam for specific health reasons. Swimming is really good for you, so we can’t argue with that!
The Rise of Bathing Costumes
All the way to the end of the 17th century, most people continued swimming without clothes. But by 1670, bathing costumes started growing in popularity.
These swimming outfits were modeled after what people wore at famous spas, like the ones in Bath, England.
In a description of bathing from 1687, Celia Fiennes said, “The Ladyes go into the bath with Garments made of a fine yellow canvas, which is stiff and made large with great sleeves like a parson’s gown; the water fills it up so that it is borne off that your shape is not seen, it does not cling close as other linning, which Lookes sadly in the poorer sort that go in their own linning. The Gentlemen have drawers and wastcoates of the same sort of canvas, this is the best linning, for the bath water will Change any other yellow.”
Modesty is King (and Queen)
In the 18th and 19th centuries, modesty was still the name of the game, at least for women.
Ladies would swim in long dresses called bathing gowns that were made of wool or flannel, went down to the ankle, and usually had long sleeves. There were weights sewn into the hems of the skirts so they wouldn’t float up in the water. Some women also wore long socks.
They looked very similar to the regular clothes women wore, and the heavy fabric was pretty dangerous to swim in. Imagine trying to swim around in a full outfit!
Related: What It’s Like to Swim in a Business Suit
During this time many men swam outdoors in the nude. But if they wanted to go to a bathhouse, local restrictions may have required bathing suits that included pants and a waistcoat.
In the 1860s, swimming naked was officially banned in the United Kingdom, and swimwear for both sexes really started to take off.
Men typically wore swimming costumes that looked a lot like long underwear. But by the end of the 19th century, men’s swimsuits had started to get shorter, although modesty was still important. Men typically wore a pair of drawers, called caleçons, that were described as being short with red and white stripes.
Women still wore their cumbersome bathing gowns, complete with those modesty-ensuring weights in the hem. However, the hemlines got shorter and “double suits” became more popular. This suit included a dress that typically went down to the knees, and covered the legs with ankle-length leggings or trousers.
Swimsuits were still made of flannel or wool. Many people thought the heavier fabric would help protect them from cold water. Women’s suits could be made from up to nine yards of fabric! Talk about heavy.
What Swimmers Wore at the First Olympic Games
In 1896, swimming made its debut at the Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. Men from Greece, Austria and Hungary competed in four events in the open water, where they wore one-piece swimming costumes that had short sleeves and shorts.
In the 20th century and beyond, swimming was more normalized as a leisure activity, which resulted in expanded fashionable swimwear options for men and women.
In the early 1900s, form-fitting swimwear started to grow in popularity, due in part to Annette Kellerman. The Aussie was an athlete, film star and synchronized swimmer who designed a one-piece swimsuit for women that was inspired by men’s suits at the time.
Related: 10 Female Swimmers Who Made History
She advocated for womens’ rights to wear less cumbersome bathing suits, and claimed to have been arrested for public indecency in 1907 for wearing one of her designs on a public beach.
Over time, Annette’s swimsuit gained popularity, and was described by Harper’s Bazaar as having a “daring beauty of fit that always remains refined.”
The public was really starting to come around. Which is a good thing, because in 1912, women were finally able to compete in swimming at the Olympic Games. And goodness knows they needed better suits to swim fast. It’s said that Annette Kellerman’s swimsuits inspired what female athletes wore at these first Games.
Starting in the 1930s, we see swimsuits really start to shrink in earnest.
In 1935, men wore topless swimsuits in competition for the first time. And a few years later, swimsuits got even smaller. Due to the war effort in the 1940s, the American government required a 10% reduction in the amount of natural fibers in swimwear. Naturally, this resulted in more two-piece bathing suits on the market, and it became more normalized for women to show a bit of midriff.
Plus, new materials like latex and nylon made it easier to create swimsuit designs that hugged the body.
Inventing the Bikini
But the 1940s are where things really get crazy.
In 1946, French designer Louis Réard designed the first ever bikini. Named after Bikini Atoll, the site of numerous nuclear bomb tests, the bikini was a risky move, so much so that Réard had a hard time finding models to wear his new suit on the runway because it was so skimpy for the time.
Most women continued to wear traditional one-piece suits, and many thought the bikini was inappropriate to wear in public.
In fact, France banned bikinis from being worn at its beaches in 1949, and Germany followed suit (literally), keeping their ban in place until the 1970s. Italy, Portugal and even some US states imposed bikini bans as well.
In 1957, Modern Girl Magazine wrote, “it is hardly necessary to waste words over the so-called bikini since it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing.” Boy were they wrong!
Around this time, the Hays Code prohibited women’s belly buttons from being shown in Hollywood movies, which stifled the bikini’s popularity in favor of modest two-piece swimsuits with more coverage.
But, the bikini was here to stay, despite all that public resistance. And as the years went on, the world began to open up to the bikini, especially as Hollywood acquiesced and more movie stars were photographed wearing them.
1950s Swimsuit Boom
The 50s postwar era also saw a boom in leisure swimming and vacationing, and, as a result, swimsuit sales. Manufacturers started using nylon and elastic to make suits stretchier and help them dry faster.
The bikini was officially cemented in American society, and wasn’t going away anytime soon. The 1960 #1 hit song “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and 1964’s first Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue are certainly proof of that!
Women also wore bikinis in movies, like 1963’s Beach Party, among others.
Evolution of Mens’ Swimwear
We’re talking a lot about women’s bikinis, but what were men wearing during this time?
Starting in the 1940s, men’s swimsuits started getting tighter and shorter as well. By the 1960s and 70s, men wore briefs or short swim trunks in a variety of colors and prints. I’d guess that some of the styles would still look pretty fashionable today!
And as swimsuit styles evolved, so did the materials and technology used to make them.
Innovation in Competitive Swimwear
In the 1970s, Speedo added elastane to their swimsuits, which was a game changer for fit and durability. It also reduced drag, which was huge for competitive swimmers. 21 of the 22 records broken at the 1973 Olympic Games were broken by swimmers wearing these new, stretchy suits.
But at that same Olympics, German swimmers wore a new “skinsuit” made of very tight cotton…that became almost transparent when wet. Understandably this caused quite a bit of outrage, but hey, the new suits resulted in the East German women setting seven world records at the 1973 World Championships, so the rest of the swimming world reluctantly agreed to explore this skinsuit technology.
Around this time, swimmers started wearing silicone swim caps and goggles during competitions as well for extra drag reduction and better vision while racing.
Little did swimmers at that time know that those skinsuits were just the beginning of what was to come in racing technology.
1990s Swimsuit Style
Before we talk more about racing suits, though, we’ve gotta pivot back to the leisure pool for a sec. In the 1990s, the tankini skyrocketed in popularity. American designer Anne Cole created this iconic design, which combined the modesty of a one-piece suit with the freedom of a bikini. And we still see tankinis on the market today!
For men, the 90s were all about big, baggy board shorts or swim trunks that stretched down to the knees.
The Rise (and Fall) of Super Suits
In the 2000s and beyond, leisure swimsuits got smaller, tighter and more colorful. But in the world of competitive swimming, things started to get really interesting.
In 2000, Speedo launched the first Fastskin racing suit, which was designed to mimic shark skin. It reduced drag and compressed muscles in key areas to help swimmers swim faster. At the 2000 Olympic Games, 13 of the 15 world records broken were done by swimmers wearing these new Fastskin suits.
And this was just the beginning of a decades-long period of innovation in swimwear.
By 2007, Speedo took the racing suit market to the next level. They partnered with NASA to create the LZR Racer, a full-body suit made of polyurethane that reduced drag by up to 24%!
Leading up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, countries were doing everything they could to get their hands on this crazy suit to make sure they could hang with their competition.
98% of the swimmers who won medals at the 2008 Games were wearing LZR Racers. 23 world records were broken in these super suits!
And the speed didn’t stop there. At the 2009 World Championships in Rome, the swimming world saw one of the most epic weeks of racing ever. 43 world records were broken in the span of a week!
But the excitement was short-lived. After that insane meet, World Aquatics (the global swimming governing body) banned most of the full-body suits. A lot of people thought they messed with the integrity of the sport. Some people went as far as calling super suits “doping on a hanger.”
World Aquatics created new regulations that controlled the material tech suits could be made from and how much of the body they can cover. So, we still have some pretty sweet technical suits for swim racing, but they don’t help us out quite as much as the OG super suits did.
Check out our video about why tech suits were banned for a deep dive into all the drama!
These days, leisure swimmers and athletes can wear just about anything they want when they hop in the water. From one-piece suits with varying levels of modesty to skimpy bikinis and speedos that maximize tanning, to training-specific suits designed to stay put during long workouts, and everything in between, we can all agree that it’s good we aren’t swimming in large, heavy swimsuits anymore.
In 2018, the swimwear market was valued at $18.8 billion US dollars, and it’s growing every year. As more people dive into the pool, we’ll continue to see swimwear change and evolve.
Let us know down in the comments if you think you could swim in one of those old, historic swimsuits. If you’re ready to take your swimming to the next level, download the MySwimPro app to start your personalized Training Plan!
- Athletics, Leisure & Entertainment in Ancient Rome
- The Radical History of the Swimsuit
- The History of Swimwear
- History of Olympic Swimming
- History of the Bikini
- Annette Kellerman
- From the 1800s to Now: Here’s How Swimsuits Have Changed Over the Years
- Light, Tight and Right for Racing