The History of Swimsuits : From Bathing Gowns to Bikinis


Hey y’all! I had plans to do an outfit post last weekend, but we went on a trip to a campground that didn’t have Wifi or phone service. We’re home now, but unfortunately, now I have a cold! I’ll do a post once I’m feeling better, but for now I thought it would be fun to delve deeper into the history of swimsuits!

A lot of people bring out the bikinis when summer rolls around and they don’t give it a second thought. We’ve come a long way from swimsuits and beach practices that used to be. Oh, if our great-grandmothers could see America now!


Let’s start in the early 1800’s. With the introduction of railroads, ocean-side entertainment became more popular as it was easier to travel. Women needed a garment to wear while splashing in the water. Ladies were known to sew weights to the hems of their smock-like bathing gowns to prevent them from floating up in the water. A fashionable bathing gown was described as ‘a gown of white French cambric, or pale pink muslin, with long sleeves and antique cuffs of thin white muslin worn over trousers of white French cambric, which are trimmed, same as the dress.’ Wow. Very fancy for a swimming garment. Also, I’d like to put that swimming was not a very popular practice for women in that day and age. It was the time when tans weren’t desirable, and they worried deeply about being modest while wet. In fact, they even had bathing houses where they would immediately take off their wet swimsuit after coming out of the water.

In the mid-19th century bathing dresses covered most of the female figure. They wore pants and dresses that were a heavy flannel material. Near the end of the 19th century, black, puffed sleeve, wool sailor dresses were popular. These were worn over lace-trimmed bloomers or shorts.


          In the beginning of the 20th century, more people were flocking to the beach. Sports such as swimming and diving became more popular, and they felt the previous Victorian-style bathing costumes were rather burdensome. A need for a new bathing style of swimsuit that was functional and modest was in order.

By 1910, bathing suits no longer camouflaged the whole body. The yards of fabric used in Victorian style bathing skirts and bloomers were reduced to show a little more skin and sun exposure. Arms and legs became exposed, but were still modest.

Starting in 1915, women athletes started to share the actual sport of swimming with men and thus began to shed more fabric for practicality and quickness in the water.


          By the early 1920s, bathing suits were reduced to a one-piece garment.  It started with a long top that turned into shorts. This is also when the swimsuit began to hug the body, instead of being loose and flowing. The Roaring 20s were the time when women began to rebel against society’s standards, also rebelling against previous swimsuits. They began tightening and shortening their swim skirts.


Beach patrols measured the length of a woman’s skirt before she was allowed on the beach. If the skirt came above the legal length, then she would be fined or even arrested. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?


          In the 1940s, the swimsuits became more flattering and fashionable. Sweetheart necklines and tucks were added.

The first official bikini was introduced in 1946. French inventor, Louis Reard, couldn’t find a fashion model to wear his bikini. All of the regular models were scandalized by the suit, and refused to wear it. He finally hired 19-year-old nude dancer, Micheline Bernardini, to model the suit. The skimpy suit was originally banned in Italy and Spain for indecency.

French actress Brigette Bardot played a big role in popularizing the bikini in the 1950s, when she wore one in her movies.

It’s pretty much downhill from there. One pieces did come back into style in the 70s, but bikinis were widely worn and accepted. Louis Reard, the inventor of the bikini, named the bikini after the atomic bomb, Bikini Atoll. His emphasis was that the bikinis would hit the beaches of the world like an atomic bomb. Was he right?

     From Victorian bathing gowns to bikinis. It’s surprising, isn’t it?


11 thoughts on “The History of Swimsuits : From Bathing Gowns to Bikinis

  1. Good morning! Just a little note to let you know that this post (along with your Feminine Friday post) has been FEATURED in our “Special Modesty Edition” today on the Art of Home-Making Mondays at Strangers & Pilgrims on Earth. Thank you for joining us and we hope to see you again this week! 🙂


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