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Bathing Beauties: Swimsuits Through the Ages

It's that time of year again: The weather's hot, the pool's open, the grill is preheating ... and women all over the United States are sucking in their stomachs and bracing themselves for one of the more demoralizing experiences in life: trying on bathing suits. But let's look on the bright side: These days, swimsuits come in a dazzling array of colors and cuts designed for all different body types. The next time you're experiencing self-loathing in a dressing room, just be glad you don't have to wear stockings to the beach. Below, a survey of the twentieth century's predominant swimwear styles.
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1910s
1920s
1930s
1940s
1946
1960s
1970s
1980s
1990s
2000s
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1910s

Throughout the 1800s, female beachgoers had been relegated to long bathing dresses and pants or bloomers, accompanied by stockings. But at the start of the twentieth century, as more and more women began to want to participate in water sports, such as swimming and diving, those Victorian-style garments became too cumbersome to allow for unrestricted movement. Although preserving women’s modesty continued to be a priority for swimwear designers, the turn-of-the-century costumes—romperlike suits featuring sleeveless tops and knee-length shorts—revealed a bit more of the female form.

_Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

1920s

Early in this decade, although women continued to sport stockings with their swimwear, the amount of fabric used to make bathing suits began to decrease, exposing more skin and hugging the swimmer’s contours. The sleeveless tank suits that characterized this era were made of wool jersey and were typically a drab gray color, although they started to appear in patterns and brighter colors as the decade went on.

_Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

1930s

By the ’30s, bathing suits began to take on a remote resemblance to modern-day swimwear as we know it. Breathable cotton replaced wool jersey as the fabric du jour, and feminine, figure-flattering garments with higher-cut legs and lower-cut necklines emerged; these styles were popularized by swimmer-turned-actress Esther Williams and by movies featuring water ballet.

Photo source: State Library of Queensland, Australia (cc)

1940s

As swimwear bared more of women’s figures, it also highlighted their physical problem areas. Seeing a golden opportunity, corset manufacturers, whose popularity had been declining, made a comeback by designing swimsuits with elastic panels designed to hold in women’s stomachs and with bra cups and boning for bust support.

Photo source: State Library of Queensland, Australia (cc)

1946

In 1946, the world was forever changed by a French engineer named Louis Reard, who patented the bikini and named it after the nuclear testing site Bikini Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands, for its supposedly explosive effect on the viewer. Early examples—typically tight shorts and a crop top—were based loosely on the two-piece garments women had worn at the turn of the century, but had a gap exposing a sliver of midriff, although it was considered improper to show the navel at that time and throughout the 1950s.

_Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

1960s

During this decade, bikinis began to shrink as minds expanded, yet the bottoms remained cut straight across the top of the leg. While some women continued to favor the more structured, supportive designs popularized in the 1940s, the introduction of nylon and Lycra meant that swimwear could be tighter and stretchier than ever.

_Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

1970s

Bikini bottoms finally became higher-cut in the ’70s, when what we know today as the string bikini began to take shape. Women also began to show off unprecedented expanses of midriff during this time.

_Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

1980s

As the 1980s progressed, female swimwear developed an increasingly narrower front and higher leg line, displaying more and more of women’s buttocks. During this decade, the Brazilian tanga—a slightly fuller-coverage precursor to the thong bikinis of later decades—began to emerge as a popular style in the United States. The ’80s also saw the introduction of layered swimwear composed of two or more individual pieces that offered next to no concealment on their own but, when worn together, provided a modicum of modesty.

_Photo source: Vancouver.24hrs.ca

1990s

Perhaps no swimsuit-wearing individual better personified the 1990s than Pamela Anderson as C.J. Parker on Baywatch. Though her red one-piece was cut high enough on the bottom to reveal her hipbones, it was about as tame an outfit as Anderson has ever worn. After the scandalous suits of the ’80s, 1990s swimwear seemed downright demure.

_Photo source: Mahiram.com

2000s

As the millennium turned, swimwear designers took up an “anything goes” rallying cry that has persisted throughout the twenty-first century. Styles now run the gamut from retro throwbacks to daring cutaway maillots to tan-through garments to barely there G-string bikinis. With a wide range of fabrics and technology at their disposal, swimwear manufacturers today truly know no bounds.

_Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

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