The History Of The Swimsuit, And What It Says About The Fight For Women's Liberation

by: Rosie Dalton | 1 year ago | Features

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Tracing the history of the female swimsuit is not so different to tracing the history of women’s liberation. It traverses from extremely covered up, to the illegality of skimpier styles and an infamous arrest, then finally settles on more progressive ground. The introduction of the female perspective has led to the launch of many great women-led swimsuit brands over the past few years and has also coincided with increasing awareness around the danger of microplastics. As a result, there are now a number of sustainable swimsuit labels, which also cater to a broader range of women. But that has not always been the case.

According to Smithsonian, the first formal iteration of this practical garment can be traced back to the 17th century – 1687, in fact, when English traveller Celia Fiennes documented the typical lady’s bathing costume of the time. Made from a fine yellow canvas, these swimsuits were described by Fiennes as being “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”. In other words, women’s bodies were to be shielded from public view at all costs.

These “bathing gowns” continued to be used throughout the 18th century as well – but were specifically for the purposes of bathing, of course. As an accessory to these cumbersome gown-style swimsuits, four-wheeled carriages known as “bathing machines” would also be rolled out into the water, as a way of ensuring the woman's utmost modesty. Which seems almost impossible today; especially if you have ever been to Bondi Beach on a hot summer’s day. 

Modesty continued to prevail over form and function well into the 19th century too, when bathing dresses were made from heavy, non-sheer fabrics like flannel or wool and still covered the majority of the female figure. Bloomers were also made popular around this time, for women to wear underneath their tunics. Perhaps it is no coincidece, really, that at this time women still weren't allowed to vote in countries such as Australia or the US.

By 1907, though, things took a turn for the more scandalous, when famous Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested in Boston for wearing a form-fitting, one-piece suit (albeit one with full legs). At that time, this sort of ‘revealing’ costume was still considered a crime of ‘indecency’. But "by promoting swimming as exercise for women and for Olympic competition and vaudeville, Kellerman continued to influence skirtless, sleeveless beach and performance wear," asserts World Clothing and Fashion. And from here on in, the one-piece became increasingly streamlined and practical.

In the 1930s, the development of synthetic fabrics with greater stretch continued the trend towards more functional swimwear and modest two pieces began to crop up as well. But it wasn’t until around 1946 that we saw the first bikini, as we now know it – a triangle style that was debuted by French model and dancer Micheline Bernardini. This ‘bikini’ was named after the site of atomic weapons testing, because, according to Time, “[designer Louis Reard] realised that with the return of peace, people would want to start enjoying themselves again.” 

By the time of the Women’s Liberation movement in the 1960s, this bikini trend had well and truly caught on and was even making appearances on the silver screen. Designers also began to experiment with colour and silhouette, eventually taking us into the maximalism of the 1980s, which is synonymous with the classic Baywatch red one piece. But not before a poster of Farrah Fawcett in a similar style launched the sale of 12 million copies of Life Magazine in 1975. This was a time, according to Dazed and Confused, where teenage girls raced to reveal bikini-impact skin while sitting in English class.

Today, a renewed push for gender equality has seen the female gaze finally make its way into the swimwear space, which is refreshing from both a design and a functionality perspective. It means that brands are now focussing more on the individual needs of diverse women and designing with this in mind. But, in tandem with this, we have also seen an uptick in the number of brands innovating when it comes to more sustainable fabric options too – as our oceans come under serious threat from microplastic pollution. Certainly we have come a very long way since bikinis were considered illegal, then, but the recent movement surrounding #freethenipple proves that we still have some boundary-breaking to do yet. And until then, we'll be busy fighting the patriarchy in the comfort of our well-made swimwear.


You can shop all of our well-made swimwear selects over here.

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