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A brief history of swimwear…

…and how to stand out like Ursula Andress

On the subject of UK lidos (in my blog last week), as I lay in the grounds of Ilkley Lido, surrounded by the modern day ringing in my ears or tried to swim whilst dodging the unsupervised dive-bombing children, I couldn’t help but hark back to how it must have been when it opened in the 1930s. Society was certainly very different back then, as was swimwear fashion – it was only just starting to look like the costumes and bikinis we’re familiar with today.

Pre-20th Century

Nude swimming, whilst still practised by men in rivers and lakes, first gave way to bathing wear in the 17th century, with gentrified male and female spa bathers wearing canvas outfits which billowed in the water to conceal the body’s outline.

Victorian billowy bathing dress

1858 Bathing Suit

Edwardian bathing costume and bathing machine

Edwardian bathing costume and bathing machine (Source: Wikicommons)

With the development of the railway permitting travel to spas and beaches, bathing became more popular. Nude male swimming was made illegal in 1860 and men wore drawers and waistcoats, which developed into the iconic all-in-one. Female Victorian bathing outfits were neck-to-ankle billowy dresses or tunics and bloomers to conform with ideas of decency. Bathers were wheeled right into the sea in bathing machines to further preserve their modesty.

Early 20th Century

Edwardian female costumes became a bit lighter, consisting of a tunic and shorter length bloomers. 

But swimming as a sport, rather than merely bathing in the waters, was becoming increasingly popular in the new century – and female swimmers in particular were hindered with their yards of fabric in tow.

In 1907 Australian Annette Kellerman borrowed the form-fitting style of a British male’s bathing suit and was arrested in the US for public indecency. She changed her one-piece to cover more skin, but the form-fitting style remained and became standard.

Annette Kellerman's controversial swimming costume

Annette Kellerman’s arrest-worthy swimming costume

Annette Kellerman's decent costume covering shoulders and legs

Annette’s revised costume

Modern swimwear

As freedoms for women increased, costumes shrank to a short suit, or occasionally a two-piece as long as it covered the navel. In 1928 an Australian company invented a racerback costume which allowed greater arm movement and faster swimming speeds. An employee dubbed them “Speedos”, and the company changed its name to the same.

Suitable fabrics were still a problem as rayon didn’t fare well when wet. Silk and cotton were used until the invention of nylon and latex in the 1930s. Many people continued to knit their own suit though.

By the 1930s it became acceptable for men to bathe bare-chested (again) and due to fabric shortages during the second world war, swimsuits needed to use less material. In 1946 “the world’s smallest bathing suit” was invented by a French engineer – the bikini. It was so risqué models wouldn’t wear it at the unveiling so the job was given to an exotic dancer.

 

Men's racerback swimming suit

Men’s racerback swimming suit

The world's first bikini

The world’s first bikini modelled by exotic dancer Micheline Bernardini

After the war, the practice of sunbathing, rather than water bathing, became more common, and so swimwear continued to become more visually arresting both in design and adornment. A more famous image than the 1946 bikini launch photos is that of Ursula Andress in the 1960s James Bond film.

Now we’re fortunate enough to be able to choose a swimming costume or bikini that says something about us (okay, and maybe one with stomach control technology and back-to-the-past skirts to cover up our wobbly bits).

But we can still all channel Ursula Andress and stand out from the crowd not only with our choice of swimwear but by accessorising it with a statement piece silk scarf from Blue Flamingo. See my blog for tips on how to wear your scarf as a cover up, and there are some examples below.

Blue scarf silk sarongs beachwear pool wear designer gifts for her gifts
hibiscus scarf worn as sarong at ilkley lido
Scarf worn as a halter neck top

The images in this blog have been sourced from https://commons.wikimedia.org/ 

Blueflamingo

Author Blueflamingo

I am an artist/designer, passionate about fashion, art and aesthetics. I have been working in the artistic field for over 20 years and Shopblueflamingo springs from my love of stunning accessories. I design my pure silk scarves and pocket squares for those who celebrate being different and enjoy standing out from the crowd.

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