It may seem like nothing more than a swath of stretchy fabric. Not even a swath -- more like patch. It's lightweight, quick-drying and leaves little to the imagination.
The swimsuit's current form may seem unavoidable. It's tough to swim (or even wade) fully clothed. And yet, that's pretty much what women did for a hundred years or so; and before that, they may have worn nothing at all.
Here, some milestones along the winding road from nothing to everything and back again. It's a path with historical significance, tracing the evolution of sex, gender roles, cross-cultural influence, and the rush to lose 10 pounds before summer.
Which is all the more reason to give it up for the bold ladies of ancient Greece, so we'll start there …
Scantily Clad (Ancient Greece/Rome)
The bath houses of ancient Greece and Rome were not places of modesty -- after all, these were places to, literally, bathe. The more skin you showed, the cleaner you got. Men and women each had their own spaces, so cross-gender viewing was not an issue.
Women in these times, from about 200 B.C. to 500 A.D., most likely were either completely nude or wore a very small bathing suit consisting of a bandeaulike top and small bottoms. Drawings from these ancient civilizations depict women wearing these bikinis, which are very, very similar to those worn by women today. (So much for the "invention" of the bikini in the 1940s -- but we'll get to that later.)
The bath houses of ancient times gave way to the Dark Ages, when public bathing disappeared. The next time we see a bathing suit is in the Victorian era -- and it's barely recognizable as such.
Clad (Late-1700s to 1800s)
If you didn't see the water and the sand, you'd never know Victorian women were at the beach.
Modesty was, to put it mildly, a virtue, and it helped distinguish the gentility from the lower classes. Accordingly, an upper class woman's bathing suit (which was the only kind, considering the time and money it took to get to the beach) left everything to the imagination. It was, at first, a long "bathing dress," complete with weights along the hem so it wouldn't float up and black stockings to prevent show-through.
There was also, at some resorts, a small, fully enclosed room-on-wheels called a "bathing machine" that carried women from the fully-clothed shore to the water-costumed water, so they were never seen in swimwear by male bathers.
The Victorian-era suit went through a few changes -- at one point it was something of a jumpsuit, a one-piece, wool trouser-and-shirt set -- until the 1800s came to an end. At this point, the bathing suit starts getting (somewhat) functional ...
Let Them Swim! (Early 1900s)
Gender roles began to alter slightly at the start of the 20th century. By 1920, women would have the right to vote. About a decade before that, they stopped being arrested for showing their legs and shoulders at the beach.
Part of what changed was that women started swimming -- really swimming. It was a competitive sport by this time, and women swam both in school and recreationally.
Accordingly, the bathing suit became more functional. It was still made of wool, but it was smaller. A bathing suit in the early 1900s was a one-piece, tank-style jumper that stopped at the thigh, and it was snug enough to allow for real movement in the water.
Sexy it was not, although it did look good on women with the boyish figure that was popular at the time. In the '30s, though, the popular shape would change, and it took the bathing suit along with it …
A Little off the Middle (1930 to 1940s)
Here's where we started to see swimsuits that looked like swimsuits. The 1930s version was figure-hugging, made of swim-worthy fabric like latex, and left not only the arms completely bare but also the legs -- cut straight up to you-know-where.
The leg was cut in a not-very-flattering way unless you were Lana Turner, straight across the top of the thigh; but if you were Lana Turner, you looked sexy in a way never seen before outside of nudie mags.
By the early 1940s, the two-piece had arrived, but it was not the bikini-style two-piece. It was simply the 1930s one-piece cut in half above the belly button, showing a few inches of skin above the waist.
This belly-button distinction is important. It was the unveiling of the button (and below) that made what happened mid-decade so scandalous even French models were appalled …
Gasp! (Meet the Bikini, 1946)
Whether French models at this time were quite as, um, free-spirited as their reputation implies is unclear, but the fact that they refused to model the invention of the decade says a lot. It was, in the fashion and morality worlds, on the level of the atomic bomb testing at Bikini Atoll for which it's named.
The bikini stunned the world in 1946 by the simple, scandalous fact that it revealed the navel -- the taboo zone beneath the belly button that no decent girl would show in public.
Two designers came up with it simultaneously, and it made its debut on the beaches of Cannes during the 1946 film festival and on a Paris runway, where it was modeled by a stripper.
The bikini trickled onto beaches and pool decks in Europe over the following years, but in the United States it provoked mostly a collective "I never!" for some time to come. As the '50s came around, women in America actually took a step in the opposite direction …
A Bit of Structure (1950s)
The curvy ideal of the 1950s (see Marilyn Monroe) was, for many, an attainable one, since "real women have curves." But the question was, were they the right curves?
And the other question was, what were corset manufacturers to do when women stopped wearing corsets?
The answer to both of these questions was the structured swimsuit of the '50s. This one-piece had built-in corsetry, basically boning in the bodice to flatten the tummy, cinch in the waist, pop out the bust, and keep the whole thing generally secure in the water. It had a low leg that, while unflattering on most of the "real women," provided some added modesty for coed sunbathing.
And then, oh my, came the '60s...
Yay! (Meet the Bikini, 1960)
The design that provoked a nation-wide gasp of indignation in the 1940s became nothing short of a phenomenon as the '60s took hold.
By the start of the decade, it was not only acceptable but even somewhat common to see young girls wearing bikinis at beaches and backyard pools. It's the rise of the latter that may have paved the way: Suddenly, women had a private swimming area in which to get accustomed to being so bare.
The 1960s bikini was pretty tame by today's standards: The tops covered every centimeter of the bust-line, and the bottoms stretched all the way from just below the navel to the top of the thigh, and they were not, typically, skin tight. -- at least not until about mid-decade, when a swimwear revolution came about. Around 1965, textile makers changed everything …
Like a Glove -- Lycra/Spandex (1960s)
In the mid-'60s, the look of the bathing suit took a turn toward the revealing, but not in the cut. It was the material that began to show so much more.
Spandex came on the swimsuit scene around 1965, and it was a huge hit. Suddenly, bathing suits were shiny when dry, glistening when wet, and left absolutely nothing to the imagination either way. God help the good girl if it suddenly turned cold.
The second-skin bathing suit we know today was born, with all of its quick-dry and easy-swim charms.
In the following decade, women's swimwear designers would take the daring, baring fabric to (what we thought was) the limit of skimpiness -- a move that put Farrah Fawcett on millions of bedroom walls …
More Skin! (1970s)
Hello, free love. The 1970s saw the death of bras, chastity belts and good old-fashioned decency, and swimwear was right there, inching up the legs of young women everywhere.
Now, the '70s high-cut leg was not the '80s high-cut leg, but it was a whole lot more baring than the '60s bikini bottom. String bikinis hit the scene, covering (what we thought was) the bare minimum, but even one-pieces revealed things never before seen in swimwear. Witness Farrah Fawcett's famous red tank suit, which showed just enough upper thigh to keep boys (and men) staring at that 1976 poster for years on end. Incidentally, that suit was donated to the Smithsonian in 2011.
In more recent times, "advances" in swimsuit design have made Fawcett's attire seem downright prudish. Styles of the '80s and, even more so, the '90s, took some cues from Brazil, thrusting beachgoers into a brave new world of, well, butts …
You won't find a lot of nude beaches in the United States, but really, these days, who needs 'em?
In the '80s, full butt coverage faded practically into oblivion, and side-boob made its first acceptable appearances in public. Thank you, "Baywatch"! The 1990s took it even further, bringing Brazilian beachwear (and the waxing that goes with it) to American shores in the form of the tanga, the thong and the three-inch triangle tops that might as well not be there at all.
But they are there, and that means everything: Somehow, there's a big difference between wearing nothing and wearing the tiny swatch of fabric called the bathing suit. How much a woman reveals can, maybe, say a lot about her. Or maybe it says nothing at all. No one knows. And that's the point.
For more information on swimwear, fashion, and other style topics, look over the links on the next page.
From the bikini to the Hermès Birkin bag, fashion favorites are often named for the people and places that inspired them. HowStuffWorks looks at 10.
More Great Links
- "Bathing Machines." BBC. (March 7, 2011)http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A3371591
- "Farrah Fawcett's red bathing suit donated to Smithsonian." Reuters. (March 7, 2011)http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/02/02/us-farrahfawcett-idUSTRE7117AA20110202
- "History of Women's Swimwear." Berkeley OCF. (March 7, 2011)http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~roseying/ids110/WHIS.HTM
- "Miss America Swimsuit Vote Takes Place Tonight" Lexington Herald-Leader. Sept. 16, 1995. Via NewsBank. (March 7, 2011)http://nl.newsbank.com/nl-search/we/Archives?p_product=LH&s_site=kentucky&p_multi=LH&p_theme=realcities&p_action=search&p_maxdocs=200&p_topdoc=1&p_text_direct-0=0EB73FFA598651B4&p_field_direct-0=document_id&p_perpage=10&p_sort=YMD_date:D&s_trackval=GooglePM
- "Swimsuit Trivia." Swimsuit Style. (March 7, 2011)http://www.swimsuit-style.com/swimsuit.html
- Thomas, Pauline Weston. "Women's Swimwear: Swimsuit Fashion History 1920 -- 2000" Fashion Era. (March 7, 2011)http://www.fashion-era.com/swimwear.htm
- Turner, Julia. "A brief history of the bikini." Slate.com. Aug. 4, 2010. (March 7, 2011)http://www.slate.com/id/2262344/
- Veteran CBS News Anchor Dan Rather to Resign. Online NewsHour Update. PBS. (March 7, 2011)http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/rather_11-23-04.html