Swimwear is clothing worn while swimming or visiting the beach or a pool. As more and more men and women visited public beaches to swim, relax, and play recreational water sports in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, issues about swimwear arose regarding popular fashion, functionality, and modesty.
The early years of the twentieth century were daring ones for women's swimwear design. Bulky suits with pant and skirt combinations were replaced by loose, one-piece suits that fit snugly against the body. They featured short skirts that covered the frontal area like aprons. In 1907 Australian swimmer Annette Kellermann (1887–1975) was arrested on a beach in Boston, Massachusetts, for indecent exposure. She was wearing a black formfitting sleeveless,
By 1916 swimwear was a popular form of fashion. That year the first annual "Bathing Suit Day" was held at Madison Square Garden in New York City where new styles of swimwear were modeled. For the first time, men's and women's swimwear was viewed as sporty, trendy, and even sexually appealing. At that time aprons began to disappear on fashionable suits. Still, regulations on many public beaches required men and women to wear lightweight un-tucked tops and skirts or skirt-like covers over the fitted shorts.
Jantzen Knitting Mills of Portland, Oregon, began manufacturing men's and women's suits of a rubberized rib-stitched fabric that held its formfitting shape wet or dry and did not retain water. They were inspired to create this new style of suit by a male rower searching for a functional suit. This suit also was appealing to the many young people of the post–World War I (1914–18) period who sought to make sports and recreation a bigger part of social life. The company patented this swimsuit in 1921. The suits were manufactured on special automated circular knitting machines similar to those used to make hosiery. The Jantzen advertising slogan, "the suit that changed bathing into swimming," reflected its recreational appeal.
In the 1920s the short apron skirt disappeared, as did stockings for females. Men's and women's swimsuits actually resembled each other. Both covered the torso and were sleeveless and formfitting. Early in the decade, women wore one-or two-piece knit suits with vest-shaped tops, scooped necks, and shoulder straps, called maillot style. Later, a more conservative one-piece California suit with a sleeveless top and skirt was fashionable. Along with the changes in fit, swimwear began to feature bold designs and colors. Instead of the dark black or blue suits of the past, swimwear began to be made in bright colors. Art deco, a type of modern art, also began influencing swimwear styles, and novelty suits with sleek art deco animal adornments became popular.
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.
Probert, Christina. Swimwear in Vogue Since 1910. New York: Abbeville Press, 1981.
[ See also Volume 3, Nineteenth Century: Bathing Costumes ]