A Brief History of Swimwear – How did we get from the flannel gown to the modern day Brazilian Bikini


Swimwear has been part of our everyday life since the beginning of time. It has evolved over time from long-sleeved dresses to the two-piece swimsuit or ‘bikini.’  This evolution has not been an easy creating major controversy along the way. Today we consider swimwear an essential part of our lives, but we can't ignore forget all the religious and social changes that had to occur along the way in order for this evolution to be possible.

Our first historical encounter with swimwear dates back to the 17th century. The common swimsuit in those days was a loose gown with ankle-length and full-sleeves; it was usually made of wool or flannel so that absolutely nothing that shouldn’t be seen was exposed. The Bath Corporation official bathing dress code of 1737 stated for women the following:

“No Female person shall at any time hereafter go into a Bath or Baths within this City by day or by night without a decent shift on their bodies.”


In the 19th century, the woman's two-piece suit was common, but we are, off course, not talking about the common bikini. It was also a gown involving a knee-length top and an ankle-length loose pant as a bottom. By the second half of this century, the French started to cut out the sleeves and to bring the top to hip-length with was a major change but still, the legs wouldn’t show because the bottom became just a bit shorter to show only the knees. By this time the beauty pageants, especially in the United States, became the popular showcase for swimwear; however, such events were not regarded as respectable.



In the 1900s people started realizing that swimwear had been made with absolutely no consideration of its initial purpose which was actually swimming! Women had to be covered up in amazingly uncomfortable pants and blouses which were heavy and completely unpractical at the time of getting actually wet. Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer competed in a synchronized swimming event held in America and she got arrested at the beach for indecent exposure because her swimsuit was a model she adopted from England which was similar to men's swimsuits of the time, the swimsuit showed arms, legs, and neck. After that happened, Kellerman also designed and made popular a line of bathing suits with her style of one-pieces which came to be known as "the Annette Kellerman" and were tight pieces that held to the figure and showed actual curves. By 1910 the swimming tights became socially common swimwear in many parts of Europe. The name "swimsuit" was established until 1915, from then on it started to shrink every time more, exposing arms and part of the legs exposing them up to mid-thigh. Also, cleavages started to happen now, still covering all the bosom but showing some chest skin. The fabrics started coming in new varieties and developing a lot towards being useful for the comfort and the practicality of the swimwear.

It was not long before designer swimwear started to shrink further. At first, arms were exposed and then legs up to mid-thigh. Necklines receded from around the neck down to around the top of the bosom. The development of new fabrics allowed for new varieties of more comfortable and practical swimwear.



By the 1930’s men started the shirtless trend we know today, those guys eliminated shirts for men in public spaces and swimming related scenarios, it became the norm by the end of this century. Now women wore more skirts than pants, but also with regulations for not showing anything more than their knees. One of the most noticeable trends is that necklines started to plunge at the back creating the whole open-back swimsuit style we all know. Sleeves started to disappear, and sides were tightened. With the development of new clothing materials, like latex and nylon, swimsuits gradually began hugging the body revealing the figure more and more, also trends that aimed for practical matters were started, like utilizing shoulder straps that could be lowered for tanning after Coco Chanel made suntans fashionable. In 1934, a National Recreation Association study on the use of leisure time found that swimming was now second after watching movies in popularity as a free time activity; this was all encouraged by the freedom of movement people found on the new textiles. In 1938, Speedo introduced their racerback silk swimsuit that was optimized to fit the body shape, providing more comfort and support for swimming activities, it uncovered the shoulders and for this they almost disqualified a woman from the Olympics in 1932, but the uncovered shoulders later became a norm by 1936, that’s FAST evolution!

So everything started moving even faster in the 1940’s. Wartime production during World War II required a lot of cotton, silk, nylon, wool, leather, and rubber, so in 1942 the United States regulated the use of fabrics for clothing due to the shortage, they mandated a 10% reduction in the amount of fabric allowed to use for women’s swimwear. To be able to follow these new regulations, swimsuit manufacturers had to start producing two-piece swimsuits with bare abdomen and start showing some skin. In 1946, the bikini we all know and love was first introduced in Paris, in this decade the halter became famous and the sexy swimsuit corset-style as well.

Even in Europe in the 1950s, where you were supposed to find the open-minded people in pro of the women’s figure liberty, there was an Italian magazine that declared that the Bikini should be worn only for sunbathing purposes or on board of boats. Women still wore one-piece swimsuits by then and when big companies realized the commercial opportunities of beauty pageants, they launched beauty contests to find the girls that would wear and promote their products, models. Designer swimsuits were now the highlight of beauty contests.

In the 1960’s things began to evolve much faster as the industry of designer swimsuits began to work based on the tastes and style of the youth market. Fabrics in swimwear were also starting to change in the middle of the 60’s, now they were mainly nylon or Lycra or a mix of the two materials, this made the new pieces stretchable and pull in-pull off which was an innovative feature for the time. In 1964 designer Rudi Gernreich created and gave us the very first monokini in history! This revolutionary and very controversial design of the monokini comprised a bottom that went from the thighs to the high part of the abdomen and was tied with shoestring laces that make a halter around the neck. This later evolved to the common monokini we all know and love like our MAYLANA Ella Monokini.




MAYLANA Ella Ipanema Monokini


Another popular change in the mid 60’s was the popularity of the bikini. Until this point, it was kind of frowned upon, but with the strength of the more liberal, young culture, beachwear started to lose a lot of coverage. Now the sexy bikini was the girl’s best friend.

The 1970s. East Germany becomes famous for its nude beaches! This was a huge step for the nudity issue that prevented swimwear to be what it is today, unusual freedom was allowed in the regimented communist bloc. In the 70s high-waisted bottoms were huge and full coverage was now out of style. Without all the restrictions, swimsuit designers started experimenting with different styles that aimed at revealing the woman figure as much as they could. The trends started in Europe and started spreading until it made its way to America and became famous in the cinematographic industry.


MAYLANA Janeiro Sierra Bottom

In the 1980’s swimwear had a major emphasis in the “cult of the body”. Neon swimsuits and most of all V style hip lines were super evident trends of swimwear born in the ’80s. The thong bathing suit was also made famous for the rest of eternity in the eighties when designer swimsuits began to take fashion inspiration from the Brazilians. (Giving us the classic Brazilian bikini bottom).



MAYLANA Skylar Black One Piece

 The retro swimwear made a huge comeback recently and is currently one of the most loved types of swimwear.


As for the 1990’s, the innovations for the decade included the tankini, which is a two-piece swimsuit with a top that covers most of the abdomen, making it fit into the two-piece trend while serving as a conservative piece similar to a one-piece. Mixing and matching the swimwear bottoms and tops was also huge in the ’90s. The success of the tankini was based mainly on addressing women’s body insecurities which were very popular after the rise of perfect models in bikinis everywhere, but the tankini style suit provides a comfortable option for all types of bodies with full coverage or moderate coverage Some brands, like ESTIVO and ORCHID LABEL, have tankini style beautiful bathing suits.


 ORCHID LABEL Tankini Lanikai Top


From the 2000’s on we have seen how the bathing suit is now a fine piece of art. Everything from the design and practicality, to the textiles and the details that make them beautiful pieces, make the swimsuit a very important item in fashion around the world. You can find pieces with embroidered art, handcrafted details, beads, macramé, crochet and many other art forms that make each piece unique. Also, the retro trends have been an amazing inspiration for some of the trendiest pieces today, the high waisted bottom, for example, is inspired in past decades as well as many others like the V-style hip and the Brazilian cut.



Ana Lopez

Leave a comment