A century of swimwear

For a hundred years, women have sought to strike a balance between getting a tan and staying within the bounds of decency. But oh, how things have changed. Susannah Frankel marvels at a century of swimwear

If 'taking the waters' has been perceived as both beneficial and entertaining since as far back as the notoriously pungent court of Elizabeth I, removing one's clothes while doing so is a more recent occurrence, particularly if one is female. The Virgin Queen and her odorous sidekicks entered the sulphurous pools at Bath fully dressed, of course. In Jane Austen's time, women wore white muslin gowns while bobbing up and down politely in that city's waters on a well-earned break from an arduous at-home piano recital, say, or some equally demanding embroidery project.

Later, in prudish Victorian Britain, with bathing the height of fashion following the rebuilding of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton by George IV, it was said that women were expected to wear more clothes to swim in the sea than they did for a promenade in the park. Modesty laws decreed that anything as provocative as the merest glimpse of bare flesh was not to be tolerated - cumbersome skirts, therefore, were weighed down with shot to ensure they didn't ride up in the water. To make doubly certain that all was just as it should be, suitably menacing officials scoured the pebbled beaches with tape measures carting off any poor soul who had the front to expose more of their lower leg than stipulated.

It took the First World War to overturn such values. The French resorts of Deauville and Biarritz were populated by women too fashion-conscious to stoop to anything as unattractive as the by-then requisite uniform of bloomers (and this despite the fact that bloomers appeared positively pragmatic compared to what had come before them). By the 1920s, Coco Chanel had decreed the suntan fashionable and set to crafting body-conscious swimwear in jersey - a fabric previously associated with nothing more haute than men's underwear - for women to ensure both ease of movement and style. In Hollywood, meanwhile, studio bosses employed Bathing Belles to promote their work. Men liked looking at women in their swimsuits, the powers that be in that city cunningly deduced, even if those swimsuits were still loose-fitting to the point of appearing clownish by European standards.

Perhaps more than any other garment, the swimming costume has changed almost out of recognition over the past hundred-odd years. A new book, The Swimsuit, published by Carlton Books this summer, does much to highlight this fact, as well as providing readers with impressively diverse swimwear facts. Did you know, for example, that in 1907 the Australian swimmer and 'underwater ballerina' Annette Kellerman was arrested in Boston, Massachusetts, for indecent exposure after wearing her swimming costume in public? Or that Speedo first appeared on the scene as far back as 1956, producing a nylon swimsuit for the Melbourne Olympics?

From the beaches of Biarritz to Baywatch, and from a footloose and fancy-free Marilyn Monroe soaking up rays at the outset of her career to a decidedly more knowing Elizabeth Hurley in diamanté and inky black techno-stretch, the following pages showcase some of this evocative garment's finest moments.

1910s

On page 27, we see an early example of Californian bathers frolicking in the sand in heavyweight knitted swimwear considered positively racy at the time. The Hollywood film industry was gathering momentum, which meant that on the West Coast of America decency laws were relaxed. Good news for women the world over - at least some of whose predecessors had died attempting to swim in the long, billowing skirts and elaborate corsetry that were the order of the day until the turn of the century.

1920s

Posing on the breakwater isn't what it used to be as this rather lovely creature just goes to prove (see page 26, top). Her knitted dress would have been attached to her tights to ensure it didn't ride up to reveal anything untoward, and rubber pumps also kept tights in place and sand out. One can only admire the woman in question for the fact that, given the none-too-comfortable nature of her attire (by today's standards), she is still smiling.

1930s

It wasn't until the 1930s that Hollywood recognised the full power of the swimsuit - read: the considerable impact of the world's most glamorous women appearing in ever more risqué states of undress. With this firmly in mind, Cole of California began collaborating with studio costumiers to produce swimwear for the stars, dressing the likes of Bette Davies and Joan Crawford (page 26, below), to name just two. In France, Elsa Schiaparelli patented her design for a backless swimming costume to promote even tanning. In America, Claire McCardell came up with a cut-out version on the theme - deemed the forerunner of the bikini.

1940s

Two-piece swimwear had, in fact, been around for a good decade before Louis Réard claimed to have invented it in 1946, as this picture (left, centre) of a still-brunette Marilyn Monroe in a bikini in the early 1940s goes to show. This portrait was taken by André De Dienes for the Blue Book modelling agency and confirms that swimwear is designed for more than just, well, just swimming. More than ten years later, the British actress Diana Dors drove that message home by appearing at the Venice Film Festival in a mink bikini.

1950s

The influence of Christian Dior's hour-glass New Look - a timely and extravagant reaction to war-time austerity if ever there was one - touched everything from the exclusive Paris ateliers to the beach. Should a woman not appear curvaceous enough to live up to the fashions of the day, the foundations of her clothing, however brief or casual they may be, would give her a helping hand. Pictured below, model Pat Hall shows off an apron-style bikini from the mid-Fifties with a fashionable gingham trim.

1960s

When Ursula Andress stepped out of the water in a white, under-wired bikini as Honey Ryder in Dr No (see page 28, top left), she resembled a new-and-improved Venus for the Swinging age. The youthful bow at the solar plexus, the strong-shouldered and snake-hipped silhouette and low-slung belt could only spring from that era. Any cultural context aside, this is perhaps the most celebrated swimwear moment of all time.

1970s

Although our image (bottom left on page 28) is actually from 1969, it perfectly encapsulates the 1970s to come. This, after all, was the era when the likes of Jerry Hall and Marie Helvin were photographed in barely-there swimwear at exotic destinations the world over. The expanse of mid-riff exposed is far greater than it previously had been.

1980s

In 1975, Christie Brinkley appeared in a Brazilian tanga by Giorgio di Saint'Angelo for Sports Illustrated. In 1981, the supermodel went still further, photographed once again for that magazine and wearing what looks (above left) like a particularly challenging X-back one-piece courtesy of Norma Kamali. If ever anything went to prove that this was the decade of the body-conscious, this must be it. Comfort is clearly not the issue.

1990s

Was there any full-blooded, heterosexual man who could resist Pamela Anderson as CJ (right) in the 1990s TV hit, Baywatch? Probably not. And this despite the fact that her swimsuit was positively demure - or at least as simple as it was possible for a swimsuit to be. And that, given that this was filmed with minimalism at its height, was precisely the point. It is safe to say that where the pneumatic Ms Anderson's good looks were concerned, no embellishment was necessary.

Noughties

My, the humble swimsuit has come a long way, as this pin-up of Elizabeth Hurley (above right), shot for the cover of the glossy biannual fashion magazine POP, goes to show. This was Hurley's post-childbirth comeback, designed to prove, with a ferocity typical of our times and the help of a swimsuit that gives new meaning to the words 'second skin', that pregnancy had done nothing to diminish her charms. As for any clothing - or lack of it - involved, suffice it to say that Queen Victoria must surely be spinning in her grave.

Sport
footballHe started just four months ago
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Travel
Streets ahead: Venice
travelWhat's trending on your wishlist?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

    Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

    Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

    Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

    Day In a Page

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect