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”

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:

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.


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!”


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:

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

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.),

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.


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.

1946 – The 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.


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.

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

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.


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).


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!


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.

2000s & that thong tha-thong thong thong

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.

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?

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