bathing suit history

Seven Culture-Shattering Moments in Bathing Suit History

Before the Olympic age, it was more common to sink than swim

Raoul Hausmann Fashion & Style

bathing suit history

With swimming dominating the first week of the Rio Olympics 2016, here are seven moments that brought the sport and the bathing suit into play.


Recreational public swimming became popular in the early 19th century (although a quick dip 
au naturel undoubtedly preceded the apple bite). Women typically wore long gowns that would billow immodestly in waist-high water, so the hems were sewn with metal weights … a clear instance of 
morality as a health threat.


One hundred fifty years ago, swimming was 
not a widespread skill. Most professional sailors, in fact, refused to learn to swim in the belief 
that if they fell into the ocean, knowing how to swim would only prolong their suffering. 
One solution to drowning was the invention in 
1875 of the Ureka “unsinkable” full-body 
suit that came with paddle gloves, a buoy, and an 
emergency flag.


The oldest active swim club in the world is 
the Maidstone Swimming Club in England. It was formed in 1844 to curb the number of 
drowning deaths in the River Medway. One of its 
early events involved dog-paddling to a raft 
in the middle of the river where tea was to be served. 
So many “swimmers” grasped onto the raft that 
it turned over and sank.


After World War I, elastic was used to secure 
the structure of men’s and women’s suits 
so that full stockings and sleeves disappeared. Although this was deemed acceptable 
for women’s competitive swimming clubs, many public beaches dispatched police with rulers to 
measure whether too much skin above knees 
and elbows was revealed.


Supposedly, the bikini was named after the site of the nuclear test at Bikini Atoll because its unveiling in 1946 by designer Louis Réard caused a cultural explosion. Celebrating its 70th birthday this year, the bikini was not only defined as a two-piece suit, it also had to be small enough to be threaded through a wedding ring.


Just as Gidget and her beach pals were 
getting the Western world comfortable with bikinis, Rudi Gernreich came along in 1964 
with his topless “monokini” that consisted solely of a bottom hoisted up by two micro halter straps. 
Condemned by no less than the Vatican, the monokini never caught on. Ten years later, the proliferation 
of clothing-optional beaches made Gernreich’s idea seem rather quaint.


One of the best-selling posters in history 
was unveiled in 1975: Farrah Fawcett in a red 
one-piece suit. Perhaps not coincidently, the hip- and bust-revealing bathing suit reappeared in 1989 with the pilot episode of Baywatch, in which cast members including Pamela Anderson (1992 to 1997) helped re-popularize the one-piece suit.