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Styles That Go In and Out With the Tide: The history and future of swimwear

Everyone can think of at least one iconic swimsuit. Maybe it’s Pamela Anderson’s red one piece from Baywatch (1989 – 2001) or Sally Field’s playful surfwear in Gidget (1965 – 1966). Perhaps Halle Berry’s sexy bikini in James Bond: Die Another Day (2002) comes to mind or one of Michael Phelps’ Olympic Speedos. These iconic swimsuits seem to stand apart from each other; they appear to come from different eras, show a range of styles, and are designed for various uses.

And yet, over the course of history, there hasn’t been as much diversity in swimwear as one might assume. Pamela Anderson’s red one piece wasn’t that different from the one Farrah Fawcett (1947 – 2009) wore some fifteen years prior in the iconic 1976 poster that hung in dorm rooms across the country. The string bikinis we see on the beach today are remarkably similar to the first bikini designed by Louis Réard in 1946. When it comes to swimwear, it’s very much like mainstream fashion; looks get recycled, certain shapes and colors go in and out of style only to come back again.

Alyssa Carter is an expert when it comes to suits. As the founder and designer of RYE swimwear, a stylish Australian line that’s known for using bright colors and fun shapes in fashion-forward designs, she knows all about recycling styles and giving them new life. She likes to incorporate techniques, colors, and materials that are not typically used for swimwear to create something fresh. RYE suits are modern, but they’re also timeless.

“Everything created draws from those who created before us. Newness for RYE comes from using old ideas in new ways,” she told ARTpublika Magazine. “It’s impossible to be completely modern or entirely new.” Perhaps this is because swimwear has limitations. The material has to look good wet; the suit has to be flexible yet sturdy; and the styles should be flattering on different body types. But limitations aren’t the only reason that looks get recycled; styles tend to pop up again and again because swimwear has such a long history.

One might think that the first swimsuits were conservative, uncomfortable, and itchy, showing little to no skin. But that’s not the case. In fact, the first recorded representation of swimsuits comes from a painting called Bikini Girls, or Coronation of the Winner in academic circles, which was found on a 4th century Villa Roma de Casale in Sicily. You probably wouldn’t guess how far back the painting dates, seeing as how the women wear two pieces with simple bottoms and bandeau tops; the same style could be seen at the beach now.

While it may seem like we're right back where we started, it doesn’t mean swimsuits didn’t change with the times. Until the 19th century, the two piece outfits found on the ancient Italian villa were actually not the norm as most people bathed nude. “In fact, swimsuits were invented in the mid 1800s…Recent improvements in railroad systems and other transportation methods had finally made swimming and going to the beach a recreational activity.”

Due to the strong emphasis on modesty, swimwear during the Victorian era could not have covered more. Women wore long sleeved belted dresses with bloomers underneath, while men wore something similar to a t-shirt and shorts, often decorated with horizontal stripes. These suits were also quite heavy since swimwear was made of wool so as to not rise up in the tide. By the turn of the century, however, swimming became an Olympic event, and a collegiate sport shortly thereafter. As a result, swimsuits became more practical.

Bulky outfits evolved into form fitting one-pieces with short sleeves. For women, shorts replaced long skirts, putting both genders in similar outfits. By 1910 and 1920 functionality of swimwear was still an important feature for athletes, however, most bathing suits became about fashion; they got smaller, exposed the arms, and crept up the thigh. The media started portraying swimsuits as glamorous and sexy, and consumers seemed to agree. By the 1940s, two piece swimwear became popular, albeit still quite modest by today’s standards; women’s bathing suits covered the belly button and only offered a little bit of space for exposed skin.

By 1946, French designer Louis Réard (1897 – 1984) introduced the bikini. He knew that his design was going to cause an explosion, so he wanted to give his creation a fitting name; Bikini is taken from Bikini Atoll, an atoll in the Marshall Islands where the US performed a recent nuclear test. Since then, most looks have been a variation of fashion from the 1940s and so on.

However, Alyssa Carter points out the differences that could occur in swimwear over one generation:

“Twenty years ago the swimwear market was dominated by the surf and performance space; brands like Speedos, Billabong, Roxy, and Quicksilver were at their peak. I was wearing an Aztec Rose red bikini with matching red board shorts down to my knees. Fast-forward to 2018 and board shorts have been replaced with cheeky cut briefs and surf brands replaced by fashion swimwear. There is a new wave of innovation in swimwear that has made it very enticing to designers and customers alike.”

As for the future:

“From a design perspective, swimwear will always have its limitations. I believe the real marker for change will be around social and technological advances. As women step up to equality and step away from beauty as a fundamental for self-worth we see more swimwear brands catering to a wider demographic. Swimwear for older women, new mums, big boobs, et cetera.”

Carter also predicts that swimwear will become more environmentally friendly in the coming years. New ideas appear everyday; ideas like “fabric dying techniques that use less water, recycled lycra, cleaner printers, eco-friendly packaging, and less throw away fashion.” She also expects a more technologically advanced way to shop for swimwear: “Imagine trying a bikini on in store through virtual reality or downloading your bikini and printing it on your 3D printer in your lounge room! Maybe one day?”


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