A Brief History of the Bathing Suit

From head-to-toe Victorian bathing costumes to the iconic two-piece, here’s how women’s swimwear has evolved over the years. (Good news: Those teeny-weeny bikinis actually aren’t getting teenier!)


4th Century A.D.

women-bathing suit-mosaic
Photo by M. Disdero/Wikimedia Commons

The bikini may seem like a thoroughly modern invention, but according to The Smithsonian Institution, a mosaic discovered in an Italian villa dating back the 4th Century depicts women frolicking in awfully familiar-looking two-pieced garb.


Early 1800s

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Seaside “bathing” becomes a trendy form of amusement, says the Vintage Fashion Guild. In line with the standards of Victorian propriety, women don “bathing costumes,” dresses complete with sleeves!—to preserve their modesty as well as their pale complexions. Generally made of wool, the dresses had weighted hems to keep the fabric from floating up in the water.



Photo by Bain News Service/Library of Congree/Wikimedia Commons

As the popularity of swimming increases, women also become increasingly frustrated by their cumbersome costumes. One of them is Australian professional swimmer Annette Kellerman, who is arrested for public indecency for wearing a one-piece swimsuit, considered a little too form-fitting for the time, on the beach. Soon everyone is clamoring for “Annette Kellermans”—the abbreviated one-piece swimsuits—ending the era of the Victorian bathing costume.



Photo by Courtesy of The Charleston Museum, Charleston, South Carolina

By now, the one-piece silhouette, consisting of a sleeveless, tank-style bodice and attached long shorts, becomes the norm. Jantzen begins mass-production of this style, turning the still-successful company into a swimwear giant. 



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The next big development strikes when a company called Mabs of Hollywood introduces suits made of “Lastex,” an elastic-based textile, closer to the swimwear fabric we’re familiar with today. Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, and Marlene Dietrich (who famously owned one in every color) are all fans and help drive the style’s popularity.


May 1946

Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

As the sunbathing becomes all the rage, women start fussing with their suits on the beach, tugging up the shorts and sliding down the straps in order to get a better tan. This inspires designer Jacques Heim to produce a two-piece swimsuit he dubs the “Atome”—after the newly discovered atom. He calls it “the world’s smallest bathing suit,” reports Time.


July 1946

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Just a few weeks later, Louis Reard quickly follows, ahem, suit, and the actual bikini is born. Reard names his creation after the Bikini Atoll, an island where testing for the atomic bomb had recently taken place, predicting, correctly, that public reaction to his design would be explosive.



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Controversial for years, the bikini finally starts to gain widespread acceptance. When Bridget Bardot is photographed repeatedly wearing hers in the French Riviera, the style becomes a must-have, says Business Insider.​



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The bikini’s popularity endures throughout the decade, evidenced in references like Brian Hyland’s hit, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” according to CNN. In 1964, Sports Illustrated launches a lasting franchise with its first “Swimsuit Issue” cover.​


1970s – 1980s

Photo by AP Photo/David Smith

Designers continue to take liberties with the bikini, attempting to top Reard’s initial explosive launch. Most notable is Rudi Gernreich, who markets topless and thong styles, reports The Huffington Post.



Photo by Courtesy Company

Thankfully, there’s a return to reasonable, wearable styles. Miraclesuit launches its first line of swimwear designed with figure-slimming, not body-baring, in mind. The company’s now famous slogan claims wearers will “Look 10 pounds lighter in 10 seconds.”



Photo by Courtesy of Anne Cole, a division of In Mocean Group

“Uniting the freedom of a two-piece with the coverage most women desire,” the Anne Cole company develops the practical and sporty tankini.


2000s to Today

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Modern-day swimwear brands continue to design styles with women’s convenience in mind. Contemporary designers, like Shoshanna Gruss and Amanda Ché now make bikini tops sized like bras and sell swimsuits as separates to provide a customizable fit and unforeseen comfort.