Women pose in front of surfboards on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii, in a photo from a 1938 issue of National Geographic. Their bare beach legs are very contemporary—a couple of decades prior, they might have been wearing stockings.
It’s been a tough summer for many Muslim women in France who want to go to the beach.
Even though France’s highest court ruled that beaches couldn’t ban women from wearing burkinis—the full-body swimsuits designed to adhere to some Muslim standards for covering the body—some local authorities have said they will continue to fine women who wear these suits instead of the smaller one-pieces or bikinis common on European and U.S. beaches. (Read “Muslim Athletic Wear Covers Skin Without Cramping Style.”)
This controversy has more to do with the perceived ideology behind burkinis than the actual swimsuits themselves (as some have pointed out, there’s not a whole lot of difference between a burkini and a wet suit with a hood). But it does raise the question—how did tight or revealing bikinis become the standard? Here’s a look at the evolution of swimsuits in the U.S. and Europe.
Victorian Bathing Dresses
To modern eyes, the woman in this photo might look like she’s wearing a kimono and pants. But this is a fairly standard bathing suit for the late 19th century.
“For a long time, the history of swimsuits [was] almost reflective of the history of dresses and evening clothes,” says Deirdre Clemente, an assistant professor of U.S. history at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, whose research focuses on fashion and clothing. And for Victorian women, bathing suits were all about modesty.
Because bathing dresses and pantaloons were shorter than regular dresses, women had to wear stockings when they swam at public beaches in the U.S. These outfits—which were often made of wool—weren’t well-suited to swimming.
They were “very uncomfortable, very heavy, very difficult to dry,” Clemente says.
Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman thought it was silly that women’s bathing suits were so difficult to swim in. That’s why she advocated for bathing suits that were lighter and more fitted. She even marketed her own line of them.
Not everyone was a fan. In 1907, Kellerman was arrested at a beach in Boston for wearing her signature tight, one-piece bathing suit.
“Her decision to wear these clothes and support a line of swimwear really is fundamental when you talk about the evolution of swimwear,” Clemente says. “Slowly but surely, functionality replace[d] modesty as the definitive factor.”
While men at this time frequently bared their arms and legs at the beach, their bathing suits still covered the chest. Above, former National Geographic President and inventor of the telephone Alexander Graham Bell wears a contemporary men’s bathing suit at the beach with his daughter Elsie and his wife, Mabel, in 1907. Unlike Kellerman’s suits, Elsie’s is loose-fitting and has a skirt. Her legs were likely bare because she wasn’t at a public beach.
Jazz Age Bathing Suits
During the Roaring ‘20s, women began to wear shorter dresses, and shorter swimsuits. The rules at public beaches changed along with the fashion.
“By end of the ‘20s, early ‘30s, this idea of covering your legs is just considered archaic at most beaches,” Clemente says. “So I would say by the early ‘30s, a lot of those rules are killed.”
Clemente cites a popular legend that Miami Beach was the first to lift its no-bare-legs rule. Apparently, Jane Fisher—wife of Miami Beach developer Carl Fisher—thought it would be a good way to attract tourists.
Bare Chests and Skin-Tight Suits
In the 1930s, bathing suits got even more risqué. Men started wearing shorts without anything covering their chests, and women’s suits became more form-fitting.
Just as the shorter swimsuits of the ‘20s had mirrored the decade’s flapper dresses, so too did ‘30s bathing suits mirror another trend in women’s fashion: “In the 1930s, swimsuits lost their back and evening gowns lost their back,” Clemente says.
With women’s tops getting lower and shorts getting shorter, there was only one more place to cut from.
French designer Louis Reard introduced the bikini in 1946. “It was the breaking point of modesty as the definitive factor in dress,” Clemente says. Although there had been some two-piece bathing suits before Reard’s bikini, none showed as much skin.
“I think that the bikini is the peak of functionality,” Clemente says. “There’s not really much else you can do except shrink down what you’re showing.”
Many people thought the bikini was inappropriate at first. And as Alissa J. Rubin points out in the New York Times, some beaches in Catholic countries like Italy had rules against the itsy-bitsy suits.
Sound familiar? It should. Rubin’s article compares the bikini bans in Italy to a recent incident in which police in Nice, France, forced a woman to remove part of her burkini.
“[I’m] completely flabbergasted that society has gotten to the point that we’re forcing women to remove pieces of clothing in order to stay in touch with what we consider to be proper attire,” Clemente says.
However, “as a historian who studies how society regulates women’s bodies,” she says she’s not entirely surprised.
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