Have Times Changed for the Better? A Look Back at Women's Swimwear

As tired as I am of hearing the old “times have changed” adage, it couldn’t be more accurate, especially when it comes to women’s swimwear. In a world that once stifled women’s fashion with a great big pillow of modesty, times certainly have changed….but is it truly for the better?

Many argue that contemporary swimsuits of the Western world have been “pushing the envelope” since their conception. A garment like the bikini is undoubtedly a statement; however, much like any flippin’ statement, criticism is to be expected.

This past month, an actress/designer by the name of Jessica Rey gave a speech for Q about her line of women’s swimwear. Her company, Rey Swimwear (whose slogan is: “Who says it has to be itsy bitsy?”) promotes fashionable modesty for women. While she credits Audrey Hepburn as her muse for the line, it seems as though her inspiration reaches beyond old Hollywood glamour.

During her speech, she cites a sample study done by Princeton University in which 21 men had their brains observed through MRI scans. At this time, they were shown photographs of women in bikinis. Note: The men were shown photographs of bodies in bikinis – faces were omitted.

Researchers concluded that when men looked at photos of the bikini-clad bodies, the brain region associated with tools, or “things you manipulate with your hands,” were most active. Rey concludes that, “wearing a bikini does give women power — the power to shut down men’s ability to see her as a person, but rather as an object” (via).

While this sample study did not reveal any information that was particularly surprising to me, I fully support the honorable intention behind her line (not to mention, I love seeing people start their own companies). While Rey did garner up a great deal of supporters, she also drew in a hefty load of thought provoking criticism. For instance:

What is “modesty”? Why should a woman have to change the way she dresses to be treated properly by a man? Shouldn’t we then be focusing on male modesty if a man is tempted to disrespect a woman based on what she wears? What if the men in the study had been shown photos of women with faces? What if they met real women in bikinis? Why are we treating men as if they are devoid of all rationality? The list goes on.

While I truly understand both sides of the spectrum, we must remember that this modesty debate is nothing new. Women’s swimwear has always walked a fine line between empowerment and objectification. For over a century, women have been arrested, shamed and measured at the hemlines because of their swimsuits. Now, (in the contemporary Western world I live in, at least) scantily clad women receive praise, be it through Instagram/Facebook “likes”, compliments or a gaze from a passerby. Yes, indeed, times have changed.

One principle has remained consistent, however. Since the beginning of time, people have used fashion as a form of communication – a means of expression. It’s a way to convey identity – to demonstrate a part of their character that cannot be detected through mere conversation. While this is fine and dandy, your swimwear just isn’t. Truth is, whether you’re topless in a G-string or wearing a skirted maillot, someone, somewhere is going to be offended by your swimwear. There are too many cultural variances and general contexts on this planet to truly consider a swimsuit design, 100%, without-a-doubt, in-for-the-win, “modest”.

No matter your personal stance on swimsuits, I find it fascinating to see women now promoting modesty when women of the past (particularly women of the early 20th century) have so vehemently fought against it.

For better or for worse, we’ve come a long way since the bathing dress and, for that, I am personally thankful.

Enough about me, though – here’s a little swimwear history to get your gears turning. While you look through this timeline, ask yourself whether or not you find these designs to be empowering. Is there an invisible line between liberation/empowerment and objectification? If so, where can you draw that line?

 1900s – The “Gibson Girls”

Atlantic Beach, 1905

That is a full-on bathing suit….or bathing dress, rather: Atlantic Beach, (1905)

Imagine these dresses with longer sleeves and bloomers and shoes in the water. Thanks to the “Gibson Girls” (which were illustrations of women who touted shapely, contoured silhouettes), bathing dresses became more functional and flattering at the turn of the century.

But don’t get too carried away…one pieces used for actual swimming still weren’t acceptable:


Annette Kellerman in her famous one piece

Fun Fact: In 1908 (or 1907, accounts vary), Annette Kellerman was detained on a Boston beach for indecent exposure. At this time, wearing a one piece with that much curvature was unfathomable. She later argued in court that the swimsuit was intended for functionality, not promiscuity. When asked about the bathing dresses, she said she “may as well be swimming in chains”. Luckily, the charges were dismissed.

Yet another Fun Fact: What she was wearing appeared to be somewhat of a “maillot pantaloon”. While this garment was flaunted all over French pinup photo shoots, the “official” maillot pantaloon didn’t make its politically correct debut until after 1915. Needless to say, Miss Kellerman was way ahead of her time.

Side note: Annette Kellerman was one hell of a person. If you’re in need of a little inspiration or just want to hear about a forward-thinking, cool person, I recommend you read more about her.



These bathing dresses may appear to be conservative summer rompers to the contemporary lot of us

By about 1915, women were considered viable contenders in the competitive swimming arena. Because it’s functionally impossible to swim comfortably in a dress, unitards (much like the one Kellerman wore years before) were more widely accepted.

Competitive swimming wasn’t the only contributing factor to this new, “relaxed” style. World War I, the booming automobile industry and silent films held up the mirror to women’s wear and said, “come make history with us!”


Clara Bow working the skirted maillot. I like the fish!

Clara Bow modeling the skirted maillot. I like the fish!

Well, well, well….if it isn’t the skirted maillot! This little number became a shore side staple at the start of the decade. Bathing beauties had no qualms about touting their curves in these body conscious frocks. A small belt at the waistline also added a touch of sexuality to the already snug garment. Notice the dramatic shift in style within the last decade?

The 1920s were an exceptional time for a number of reasons: American women had won the right to vote, World War I had ended and….jazz music (if I could cue some ’20s jazz during this read, I’d do it in a heartbeat). Each of these developments were contributing factors to the brazen attitudes of both young men and women of this time.

Even though swimwear like the skirted maillot was a definite improvement from the bathing dresses of the past decade, not everybody was so enthused:

Bathing Suit Arrests in Chicago, 1922

Bathing Suit Arrests in Chicago (1922)

Much like all other emerging swimwear styles, the skirted maillot and its many variations were met with resistance.  Women who were caught in public wearing an “abbreviated” swimsuit were arrested.

A Not-So-Fun Fact: In 1919, a young woman was arrested on Coney Island for wearing a swimsuit underneath her regular clothes.


1930s – It’s all about the navel

Bette Davis, 1933

Bette Davis, (1933)

Gimme a high thigh! Contrary to the skirted maillots of the ’20s, 1930s style swimsuits showed a little more leg. While the front of the swimsuits remained relatively demure, the exposed back and/or cut-outs told a sexier story.

Fun Fact: The Hollywood Hays Code prohibited navels from being seen on movie screens. According to Hays, the code was created to “set up high standards of performance for motion picture producers,” while creating a mindful environment with “good taste and community value” (via). Aside from navels and other sexually suggestive….things (e.g. lustful kissing, suggestive dancing, lingerie, nudity, etc.),

“The mocking of religion and the depiction of illegal drug use were prohibited, as were interracial romance, revenge plots and the showing of a crime method clearly enough that it might be imitated” (via).

Can you think of any contemporary films that would be deemed “acceptable” if the Code were still in effect today? I’m not even going to try because my brain might explode in the process. Needless to say, the no-navel rule is what influenced the high waist swimsuits you’ll be seeing for the next 20-some years.

Aside from this, the ’30s were revolutionary because they helped define the phenomenon women’s swimwear is today. Thanks to cut-outs, theater costumes and Hollywood, rumors of the two-piece suit soon surfaced.

Note: A two piece is NOT a bikini! It’s only a bikini if your navel is visible. Who knew navels could have so much authority?

For the most part, Europeans were ahead of the fashion game (as usual) and pioneered the two piece at this time. This trend took a little more time to catch on in the United States.

For those of you who love the ’30s, I’ve added a few modern comparisons for your viewing pleasure.

River Island Black Mesh Panel Cut Out Swimsuit - comes with a strap!

Woman sporting cut-outs (1933), River Island Black Mesh Panel Cut Out Swimsuit – comes with a strap! Get the look:

Jean Harlow, 8PM Button Up One Piece

Jean Harlow, 8PM Button Up One Piece



Ava Gardner in some lattice side briefs

Ava Gardner in lattice side briefs

I think we all know the two piece was inevitable at this point. Thanks to wartime rations on fabric, two piece swimsuits were totally and economically justified. It always helps to have Hollywood ladies like Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable and Lana Turner reinforce this trend.

Even though the French created the halter bra in 1933, it didn’t start making its debut in the US until the ’40s. Having tops and bottoms now separate allowed for designers to hone in on their creativity. Thus, a variety of both tops (halter bras, standard bras, bandeaus) and bottoms (skirted panties, shorts, sarongs) were introduced to women’s swimwear.

Linda Christian (1945), Urban Outfitters Flower Power Two Piece

Linda Christian (1945), Urban Outfitters Flower Power Two Piece

1946 – The Bikini

Micheline Bernardini wearing the first bikini

Hard to believe this is 1946! Nude dancer, Micheline Bernardini, modeling the first bikini

While Americans were still adjusting to bare midriffs above the belly button, the French were busy inventing the bikini.

Fun Fact: Did you know the bikini was named after a place called Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands AKA the site of the 4th atomic bomb explosion on Earth? Creator/designer Louis Reard gave it this name because, like the bomb, the bikini is small but devastating.

Another Fun Fact: Parisian models refused to wear the bikini on account of its raciness. Instead of using a professional model, Reard found a nude dancer named Micheline Bernardini who was willing to wear the bikini.

Mixed reviews and speculation circled about the bikini for years. Vogue editor, Diana Vreeland, called it “the atom bomb of fashion”. American swimsuit designer/entrepreneur, Fred Cole (owner of Cole of California which was HUGE that the time) said he had “little but scorn for France’s famed bikinis” and said they were meant for, “diminutive Gallic women” (AKA petite French women). Many Americans referred to the bikini as a “two-piece bathing suit which reveals everything about a girl except for her mother’s maiden name”.

Needless to say, the bikini was not widely received in America – at least not immediately.



Ladies looking sharp in their corset inspired swimwear

While many people think of the ’50s as being a modest time, I find it pretty sexual. Swimsuits were made to wildly enhance the female figure. Tiny waists were achieved through corsets and a full bosom was helped by metal springs, boning wire and padding. In an effort to combat the bikini, the strapless maillot (as seen above) was introduced.

Fun Fact: Despite the bikini rejection in the United States, an 18 year old Parisian named Brigitte Bardot starred in a film entitled, The Girl in the Bikini (1952).

Another Fun Fact: The bikini was outlawed in the Miss World pageant, 1952.

Mod Cloth Bathing Beaut One Piece

Mod Cloth Bathing Beauty One Piece

Grace Kelly, Norma Kamali Fringed Bandaeu Bikini (I know it's ridiculously expensive, but it looked too good)

Grace Kelly, Norma Kamali Fringed Bandaeu Bikini (I know it’s outrageously expensive, but I had to include it)


1960s – The Sexual Revolution

It took a while….but the bikini finally caught on. Brian Hyland’s legendary hit, “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini“, boosted bikini sales in America.

By 1963, the bikini was going strong, becoming a pop culture symbol of sorts. By that summer, Newsweek (cryptically) asked, “Will there be topless bathing suits in five years?” To answer your question, Newsweek, it’ll be in a few months.

1964The Monokini: An Intro to Topless-ness

Peggy Moffitt in Rudi's monokini

Peggy Moffitt in Rudi’s monokini

Designer Rudi Gernreich created the monokini. This was considered part of the extremist movement of the 1960’s. Gernreich asserts that, “Sex is the person. Not what she puts on”.

The monokini contributed to the growing sexual revolution of the 1960s. Women were now free to dress how they wanted, even if it meant challenging the norms of the 1950s

The United States never really accepted this design. In fact, the NYPD was instructed to arrest any women seen in monokinis. A 19 year old was then arrested and fined for wearing one at a public beach. Even the French were putting bans on the monokini. The mayor of St. Tropez banned topless women and ordered police to hover the beaches in helicopters. Ironically, the French Riviera is now a place renowned for topless tanning.

Fun Fact: Rudi Gernreich made this in protest of a repressive society. He believed that the body should not be shamed and that baring a woman’s breasts is a form of freedom.

Another Fun Fact: Brigitte Bardot (again) popularizes the trend in France by sunbathing topless at the Babylos Hotel in St. Tropez.

60s Darlene Ad, Norma Kamali Shane One Piece

60s Darlene Ad, Norma Kamali Shane One Piece

Peggy Moffitt, Agent Provocateur

Peggy Moffitt (in Rudi Gernreich’s design), Agent Provocateur Mazzy Swimsuit



The “Tanga” suit, more commonly known as the thong, was introduced in both Rio and St. Tropez.

Reductionism introduced a lot of newer materials that hadn’t yet been utilized in swimwear: mesh, crochet and spandex are three big ones. Bikinis were also dangerously low on the hips, right below the pubic bone. As bikini bottoms got lower, designers got creative with how to fasten them together. Ties, rings, gatherings – all viable options today (and in the ’70s).


Pam Grier, Free People Daisy Crochet Bikini Top

Pam Grier, Free People Daisy Crochet Bikini Top

Cheryl Tiegs, Minimale Animal Golden Triangle Swimsuit

Cheryl Tiegs, Minimale Animale Golden Triangle Swimsuit



Enter the age of the V-kini. Those leg lines don’t lie, people. The heightened leg line is an easy way to identify just about any 1980s bathing suit. This feature was added to both bikinis and one pieces in all their variations. Bikinis are becoming all that more customizable with strings on both tops and bottoms while one pieces are becoming more unique. Plunge one pieces (as seen on Elle Macpherson) were super sexy.

It wouldn’t be the 1980s without some geometric influence, would it? Asymmetry was brought back from the 1960s which helped inspire a plethora of other styles toward the end of the decade.

Because the leg lines have reached such great heights, the bottoms actually begin to fuse with the tops!

Sidering Miokini, 1984, Minimale Animale BO Swimsuit

Sidering Miokini, (1984), Minimale Animale BO Swimsuit

Ridley Roberts, 1987, NLP Neoprene High Neck Bikini Top

Ridley Roberts, (1987), NLP Neoprene High Neck Bikini Top



Volleyball Star and Model Gabrielle Reece

Volleyball Star and Model, Gabrielle Reece

When I think of the ’90s swimwear, I think of my tie dyed one pieces, not thongs. Unbeknownst to me, topless women in thongs became progressively common in the French Riviera after ’88. I thought that was supposed to happen after Sisqo’s Thong Song, but we’ll get to that later.

Meanwhile in America, Baywatch was making a huge impact on swimsuits. The high leg lines and V-kinis remained for the beginning part of the decade. Athletic influences also began to take hold thanks to famous athletes/models like Gabrielle Reese. I personally think Sporty Spice had a lot to do with it too.

Oh! And speaking of athletic influences – does anybody remember the tankini? Those were introduced in the late ’90s. They were essentially a two piece suit comprised of bikini bottoms and a water friendly tank top. I loved wearing the tankini as a kid because I thought it made me look like a surfer.

Let’s not forget graphic one pieces.

Zebras? Horses? Why Not? Tyra Banks, 1996, We Are Handsome Mustang Scoop One Piece

Tyra Banks, (1996), We Are Handsome Mustang Scoop One Piece

Pam Anderson, American Apparel Nylon Tricot High-Cut One Piece

Pam Anderson, American Apparel Nylon Tricot High-Cut One Piece


2000s & that thong tha-thong thong thong

Beyonce on the cover of SI Swimsuit Edition, 2007

Beyonce on the cover of SI Swimsuit Edition, (2007)

Fun Fact: In 1999, Sisqo’s Thong Song was released, causing a surge in thong bikini sales worldwide.

Other than that, however, the millennium represented an amalgamation of styles, many of which were continuations of the past. Bikinis, tankinis, one pieces, two pieces. Anything you want, you can have in any size, color or fabric.

Ana Beatriz Barros, Asos Tropical Plunge Halter

Ana Beatriz Barros, Asos Tropical Plunge Halter

Phew! That was a lot to take in.

I want to know what you think, though. Have times changed for the better? Are women empowering themselves more or less with their swimwear choices?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000126045068 Christina Miller

    Fun fact:

    The bikini came about as a need to conserve resources for WWII. The military went to the designers and asked them to design something using less material. Thus, the bikini was born..

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=699675759 Eric Dittman

    It’s dumb to think that brain activity necessarily correlates to what someone actually thinks.. Human thought is not quite that simple.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=522082626 Katie Conigliaro

    I think it is important that today women have the choice. I personally prefer bikinis not because they are “skimpy” but because I don’t like the way a one piece hugs my already rather overly noticeable hips. Some women are uncomfortable in bikinis and I agree with the woman that cute one pieces absolutely should be a more prevalent thing, however I strongly disagree with her conclusion that women need to be dressing more modestly if we expect the equality we strive for. Equality means getting to wear whatever it is we feel comfortable in without being shamed because of it. We should be teaching there is nothing wrong with being modest and there is nothing wrong with being less modest, and we need to be teaching it to both boys and girls. Instead we teach girls that dressing a particular way has certain consequences; we need to teach boys to respect a woman regardless of her wardrobe.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003198894820 Sophia Elias

      Well said, Katie! Thanks for your input :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1313843860 Leela Smash

    Great article. Thank you!

    I think that what’s “empowering” is for women to CHOOSE what kind of bathing suit they want to wear. If somebody gains confidence by being sexy, and wearing a bikini will make her feel fabulous, then great! If somebody would rather dress conservatively and have the world focus solely on her personality, also great!

    I believe, in my fourteen years of wisdom, that having the OPTION to wear whatever we want is ideal. (And I totally appreciate women like Jessica Rey and Gabifresh, because they continue to provide us with all kinds of options!)

    But, because many people DO have such strong opinions about swimwear and because there IS so much controversy, every single choice is a statement. And every single statement sparks criticism. You can never please everybody, so why even bother trying? Wear whatever the fuck makes you feel your best, and screw whatever other people are thinking.

    ANYBODY can make ANY choice. If some men (who, en passant, never have to deal with any hate when it comes to what they wear ever, heyo double standard!) can’t tell the difference between women and objects, that’s a problem that we have to STOP, not support by conforming to a twisted, both slut-shamey and prude-shamey system.

    I personally choose different kinds of bathing suits for different situations, and I don’t go around judging others based on their swimsuit choices (Yay, girl love!). We’re living in a time where this doesn’t have to be a crazy notion, and I am grateful for that. Honestly, this whole thing seems pretty frivolous, and I think that instead of actively working towards a “solution” and trying to make everybody happy, we should focus our energy on solving bigger and more important problems.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1145160119 Kaitlin Kowynia

    I definitely think times have changed for better. Women can choose what to type and style swimsuit and not be arrested, that’s freedom. And I agree, what is empowering is the choice made by the individual.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1145160119 Kaitlin Kowynia

      Oh, typos. Let’s try this again: I definitely think times have changed for the better. Women can choose what type and style swimsuit and not be arrested, that’s freedom. And I agree, what is empowering is the choice made by the individual.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=519983134 Jessie Raeke

    Yes, I think times have changed for the better. At least we have choices now! That being said, I really like what Jessica Rey has to say about modesty. Not all women are candidates for string bikinis (nor should we all be)! I personally think that there is nothing hotter in the swimsuit pictorial than Marilyn Monroe in the white one-piece. Sometimes, it’s what you don’t show that creates the allure. True empowerment is, and will always be, in the freedom of choice.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=552642991 Samantha Nichöle Heckert

      “True empowerment is, and will always be, in the freedom of choice.” Well said. I fully agree.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1022127921 Shelby Hintze

    I totally and completely agree with the comments below but I’ve got to play a little devil’s advocate. Hear me out.

    I was curious about Louis Reard’s background so I looked him up. He was an automobile engineer. The only background he had in fashion was that he worked at his mother’s shoe store. When he introduced the bikini, it took awhile for it to become part of the mainstream (at least in the US). According to the History Channel, “The bikini was a hit, especially among men, and Bernardini [the model] received some 50,000 fan letters.” The only person he could get to model it was a nude dancer and it was a hit among men. I think that shows a pretty good line between objectification and empowerment. And don’t even get me started on the monokini (also designed by a man). The women of the Gibson Girl era just wanted to be able to swim. Now, sometimes swimming in a barely there bikini is just as impossible, unless you want to give the beach a peep show.

    I am all for empowerment and having the right to choose what you wear. But I just wonder, do we wear bikinis (or anything “immodest” for that matter) because we do feel sexy, comfortable and empowered or do we do it because “the world” tells us we will feel that way, the less we wear?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=706072393 Michelle Berntson

      very well said. Thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=706072393 Michelle Berntson

    It is nice to have the freedom to choose and THANK GOODNESS we are free of bathing dresses, but I think designers (and those who purchase their fashions) have taken it too far. In an over-sexed world the last thing we need is more immodesty. Everything seems to be about sex, not people, but sex…

    Many, not all, but many men look at women as objects because of the way they dress. To be clear, this is not the woman’s fault, but why further a man’s likeliness of objectification by dressing in revealing attire?

    I’m all for feeling empowered, but where do we draw the line? Why do so many women feel they’ll go unnoticed unless they “expose” themselves to the world! You don’t have to take your clothes off to enjoy swimming or get attention from guys. We are women not objects!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003575813883 Peter Tancordo

    This was a very interesting history read, but what I think has happened is that things have indeed gotten out of control. When womens swimsuits first were created, the big reason I think most women fought so extremely to wear less and less is precisely because it was forbidden, illegal and was something to “champion” for “womens rights”, thus it felt like your “freedom” to like a sex tart was restricted, so they fought more and more to have women wear less and less.

    Nowadays, you see these groups and women who clearly see the ravages of how women dress today, the lack of respect for ones self by dressing like a total hoebag, and worse, feeling like you “have” to in order to fit in. Its just shameful. Now that they have the freedom to dress however they want, some women are starting to see how disgusting and piggish it is, and wanting a return to modesty, especially when you know that men are going to be eyeing you in the wrong way if they see too much of you. its funny, its only when you actually HAVE the right to wear what you want, that you start to see the negative side of too much freedom, which I think is the biggest problem with American today. when you live in a society where you see girls wearing pajamas to the store, and men wearing pants so baggy you can see there boxers, you know something is deeply wrong.

    I do believe in human rights, but the right to slut yourself around should never be looked at in a positive light. I went to the beach recently and not only are women wearing close to nothing these days, but many of them have tattoos ie. tramp stamps, which for me is just as gross. I think the swimsuits where it was a one piece, or a 2 piece that covered the naval were cute and pretty modest while still looking attractive, but the thongs, tiny little panties you see today is really unappealing to me. for me, as a man, more is more, not less. I don’t talk to women who dress like sluts, whether on the beach or not.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003575813883 Peter Tancordo

    To add, Some of the comments here are by very young and very immature girls. 14 year olds have to right to comment on this stuff, seriously. Todays swimsuits and bikini’s are pretty glorifed bra and panties. its not really a swimsuit. you might as well just go to the beach in your underwear these day. actually, I have seen that too. Yeesh, how gross people are today, not only men but especially women. You DO tempt other men when you wear something like that. I look at it like they are just begging to get raped. Why do you think men are the ones who have to exercise self control? the double standard is horrific. Men are pigs? ha! look at yourselves.

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