The Evolution of the Swimsuit

With winter weather wreaking havoc on most of the United States, there’s never been a better time for a reminder that summer is coming. One of, if not the, biggest staple in summertime garb is the swimsuit. Depending on your age, personal preference and sense of style, there are any number of different kinds of swimsuits on the market for folks looking to claim their little piece of the beach.

It hasn’t always been women in bikinis and guys in board shorts, however. America has seen quite the transformation in the way we wear and view swim attire over the last one hundred or so years. Not only do styles change, but social norms and opinions do, as well. While you’re all probably bundled up and hidden away from the frozen wasteland outside, let’s reminisce about sunnier days and take a look at the evolution of the swimsuit.

Early 20th Century
Back at the turn of the 20th century, folks were considerably more modest than we are today in terms of what is an appropriate amount of bare flesh in public. So modest in fact, that there were modesty laws that required females to wear certain length bathing suits, often with stockings, and men wore full-body suits that looked a lot like colorful long underwear.

At the turn of the century, there existed a glorious contraption known as a “bathing machine” which was basically a small shed mounted on a wagon in which women would change into their bathing suits and be wheeled to the shore, so as to not be seen in her already extremely modest, long bathing suit. After the bathing machine fell out of favor, many ladies went so far as to wear bathing coats, which they would wear down to the shoreline, remove, and then put back on upon leaving the water.

As time wore on toward the ’20s and ‘30s, women began wearing something more akin to knee-length dress-type swimsuits, often still accompanied with long stalkings to cover their exposed legs. Even the most modest amount of skin by today’s standards could see a woman thrown in jail. Seriously, they could be arrested for too much exposed leg above the knee. Men’s wear began to get progressively shorter (the Speedo was invented in the late 1920s), but most American men were self-aware enough to know that just because they could show more skin, most of them had no business actually doing so.

The Invention of the–gasp–“bikini”
In the mid-1940s, Frenchman Louis Reard unveiled what would become one of the most controversial garments in the history of fashion–the bikini. The bikini set off a firestorm, with even Reard’s regular models refusing to don the skimpy-for-the-times attire and many countries going so far as to ban its use. In fact, it’s rumored that Reard hired strippers to model his invention. By the 1960s however, the bikini was gaining in popularity, aided by a the tune “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” by Brian Hyland, and later by the now famous annual Swimsuit Issue in Sports Illustrated.

Into the Modern Day
By the time society fully embraced the bikini, our culture was in the midst of the “Free Love” era. Young people were becoming much more liberal about their bodies, sexuality, and individualism. By this time, men had long gone topless at the beach, typically donning some sort of swim trunks or “board shorts (which gained popularity in conjunction with surfing).” Since the 1970s or so, swimwear in America has largely been shaped around fashion rather than taboo. Sure, there are (or have been) some nuances in the design like the “G-string” and the “Monokini,” but it seems we have hit somewhat of a plateau in social acceptance regarding how much exposed skin is too much. Granted, some still take it a bit far (here’s looking at you, old guys in tiny speedos), but everyone has and is free to express their own individuality and sense of style.

On a personal note – while such freedoms are great, it’s always polite to keep your fellow swimmers’ enjoyment in mind. Self-awareness is an awesome thing, and one should use it to their advantage, including when choosing how much skin to expose to the eyes and minds of John Q. Public. Get the drift?

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