As I sit at my desk, I can look out onto the beach and watch as people stroll by on the Boardwalk or set up their chairs on the sand. Recently as the weather has gotten warmer, I have seen more and more beachgoers sporting bathing suits as they go by. A few brave souls have even gathered enough courage to take a dip in the still quite chilly Atlantic. On the walls right outside my office I can read about how bathing suit culture has changed over the last 100 years. I wanted to take some time to share some of that history with you.
Bathing suits in the 1890s were designed to hide the body. For women, this meant a black, knee-length dress, often with puff sleeves and a sailor collar. Bloomers or trousers had to be worn underneath, along with black socks, shoes, and a bathing cap. Swimming was acceptable, but the heavy wool outfit made it difficult, especially in ocean currents.
Beachgoers began to play on the edge of the ocean, and even swim in shallow waters. At the beginning of the decade, most swimsuits were made of wool, and many beaches still required black, knee-high socks and shoes.
The most popular swimsuits looked like short, tight dresses, to go along with the “flapper” fashion off the sand. Another common choice was the “two-piece” Jantzen suit, a long tank top sewed on top of a pair of shorts. Swimsuits were available in solid colors, sometimes with contrasting details.
Some women also wore rubber swim caps. The “aviator” style was popular because its tight fit helped “bobbed” haircuts keep their shape. By the late 1920s, shoes no longer had to be worn on the beach. On some beaches, police went around with tape measures, and fined women who showed too much skin between the bottom of their skirt and the top of their knees.
Men’s suits also became tighter and shorter. At the beginning of the decade, they resembled a long tank top sewed onto a pair of shorts. As the decade progressed, designers began to cut material off the shoulder area. This made both swimming and showing off muscular arms easier. The two-piece men’s suit debuted in 1926. It consisted of a light colored tank top with dark shorts, complete with a belt. Regardless of which swimsuit visitors chose, by1930, the beach had become a place for fun in the sun.
In 1931, designers started adding darts, allowing women to show off their figures. For the first time, swimsuits could be fashionable. The fronts of swimsuits dipped lower, but designers focused on taking fabric off the back. Low-dipped backs and “crab back” (now called racer back) suits were very popular.
Men’s swimsuits changed drastically in the 1930s, going from full-body suits to swim briefs. This went along with new ideas that the ideal man’s body was strong and athletic. The wool swim briefs could be solid colored or striped, but almost always had belt loops, a white belt, and a metal clasp. As the decade went on, the briefs got shorter and tighter.
Swimsuit fashion continued to change throughout the decade. For women, the trend towards less material continued. Many people say this was part of an effort to conserve materials for the war effort. However, one-piece suits were still popular. They resembled short, tight dresses, with either straight or swing skirts. Halter tops were especially popular. One-piece suits often had cuts under the bust to show additional skin. By the early 1940s, the move towards two-piece suits was well underway. Initially, they looked exactly like the one-piece suits, just cut in half. Women could show midriff, but never the belly button. By the end of the decade, these suits consisted of a top with tight shorts or a flared skirt. Patriotic colors, florals, and polka dots were all very popular.
For men, swim briefs continued into the 1940s. They were usually made of dark colored wool or Lastex, and had a high waist with a belt, as well as high cut legs. Swim trunks also became popular. These were made of cotton, had an elastic waist, and were cut straight across the mid-thigh. Usually they were dark colors, though sometimes they had tropical prints. They were designed to be worn with short sleeve button up shirt over top, so men could go from beach to resort without changing. By 1950, the seaside was a popular destination, not only for swimming and recreation, but for being seen.
Women’s swimsuits featured fun, bright colors, often in bold, contrasting patterns. There were both one-piece and two-piece styles. The bandeau top (with strings that tied in the middle) was quite popular. The strapless swimsuit, better for lounging on the beach than swimming, became an icon of the era. These remained popular in the 1960s, along with the bikini. The bikini was popularized in France beginning in 1946, but was banned on many American beaches well into the 1950s. For men, swim briefs were still popular, but knee length swim shorts gained popularity. They were designed to look like walking shorts so they could be worn off the beach without looking under dressed. Like women’s suits, they tended to have bright colors and tropical prints.