A Swim Through Time

Ancient Skinny Dip

The history of swimwear takes us back to the 4th century Villa Romana del Casale, where North African mosaicists portrayed women exercising in bikini-like suits with bandeau tops. This earliest known depiction of bathing suits stands in contrast to the centuries beforehand when the ancient artists of Pompeii painted nude women in bathhouses, suggesting swim attire was unnecessary. Then, as the Middle Ages unfolded in the Christian West, swimming became a moral taboo. This emphasis on morality would go on to shape the conservative swim attire of the past, as English traveler Celia Fiennes noted in 1687: "The Ladyes go into the bath with garments made of a fine yellow canvas, which is stiff and made large with great sleeves like a parson's gown; the water fills it up so that it is borne off that your shape is not seen.”

Not a Hint of Skin


In the 17th and 18th centuries, women's swimming experiences were governed by modesty. Unlike men, who could swim freely, women were required to wear long-sleeved bathing gowns made from heavy, opaque fabrics such as wool, canvas, or flannel. These gowns often featured weighted hems to prevent the exposure of bare legs. Additionally, women wore bathing slippers made from materials like twisted straw or felt to protect their feet from broken glass and seashells.


To maintain their privacy, women used "bathing machines," which were four-wheeled carriages that could be rolled out into the water. These machines allowed women to change into their bathing attire and enter the sea discreetly. Still, although sea bathing was believed to have health benefits, complete immersion was discouraged for women, as it was considered unfeminine. 

Bloomer’s Debut

Born in Homer, New York, Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894) grew up in a modest household and received a limited education. However, her marriage to Dexter Bloomer, a supportive husband, lawyer and newspaper editor, greatly influenced her activism and writing career. Deeply involved in the women's rights movement, Bloomer attended the groundbreaking Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and became a strong advocate for women's suffrage. Her most significant contribution, however, was in the realm of dress reform. 


The "Bloomer costume" was designed for women's comfort and practicality, drastically departing from the restrictive corsets and long skirts of the era. Bloomer promoted this new style through her newspaper, "The Lily," the first newspaper for women, sparking important conversations about women’s health, mobility, and societal expectations.

Later variations of the Bloomer suit, made of lighter fabric and cut higher on the leg, showed the growing influence of sportswear on swimwear. Although controversial in their time, these suits represented a significant step towards more practical and comfortable swimwear for women.

Bathing Costumes 

In the early 1900s, women's water-based activities continued to be regulated by the overarching need for modesty. Bathing for health benefits had fallen out of fashion but women continued to bathe and paddle in the water, though vigorous exercise was considered unladylike. Similarly, women's swimwear was meant to reflect this propriety, leading to the evolution of loose-fitting chemise gowns into more fitted and complex designs that mimicked the silhouettes of women's fashion.


A typical bathing costume consisted of a dress, drawers, bathing cap, and stockings, often made from wool or cotton. These fabrics became heavy when wet and hindered movement. Women also frequently covered their bathing gowns with long-sleeved, full-caped bathing coats. These silk coats were worn to the beach, removed at the water's edge, and donned again upon exiting the water. Sailor-inspired bathing suits also gained popularity, often featuring black-and-white striped taffeta, a sailor-style collar, black silk stockings, and black leather sandals. The restrictive nature of women's swimwear reflected and reinforced the social and physical constraints placed on women in the patriarchal society of the nineteenth century.

Million Dollar Mermaid 

Heralded by newspapers as "The Original Mermaid," Annette Kellerman, an Australian endurance swimmer, vaudeville entertainer, and silent film star, revolutionised women's swimwear in the early 20th century. Born with rickets and made to wear steel braces, Kellerman took up swimming to strengthen her legs. Amazingly, she went on to break numerous records, including the 26-mile swim from Dover to Ramsgate in 1908 and an underwater time of 3 minutes and 27 seconds.

Moving to London in 1905, Kellerman first made headlines when she attempted to swim the English Channel at 18. She wore, controversially, a men's style swimsuit that revealed part of her thighs. "This [press] made her famous,” says Kellerman expert Peter Cox. More significantly, it marked her most enduring accomplishment: popularising the one-piece swimsuit. According to Cox, Kellerman “expanded the accepted notions of what was proper, in terms of bodily display, and made it possible for a generation of women to learn to swim."

In 1907, Kellerman would be arrested for indecency while wearing the one-piece swimsuit. "Me, arrested!" She said in a 1953 Boston Sunday Globe article, "We were all terribly shocked, especially my father, for I was his innocent protected little girl." Scandal aside, by 1910, Kellerman was the fourth highest-paid vaudeville entertainer in the country, performing daring stunts and starring in films like "A Daughter of the Gods," which featured cinema's first full-frontal nudity scene from a leading actor, with her bare-skinned torso partly obscured by long dark hair.


Inspired by Kellerman, in 1915, Jantzen created the wool "swimming suit," officially coining the term six years later. The company soon introduced its "Red Diving Girl" logo, which embodied the emerging liberation of femininity at the water's edge during the Roaring 20s. 


Despite her pioneering role in liberating swimwear, Kellerman disapproved of the bikini when it debuted in 1946. "The bikini shows too much," she said. "It shows a line that makes the leg look ugly, even with the best of figures… Only two women in a million can wear it. And it's a very big mistake to try."


Nonetheless, the bikini took off…


Itsy Bitsy 


In July 1946, Louis Réard, a French engineer who had recently taken over his mother's lingerie business, unveiled a creation that would forever change the landscape of swimwear: the bikini. Réard's design, a mere four triangles of fabric held together by string, daringly revealed the midriff. The halter top and bottoms were a far cry from the modest swimsuits of the era, so Réard named his design after the infamous Bikini Atoll, an atomic bomb testing site in the Pacific Ocean. Just as the atomic bomb had shaken the world, Réard believed his bikini would send shockwaves through the fashion industry.

Unable to find a model willing to wear the scandalously skimpy two-piece, Réard turned to Micheline Bernardini, an exotic dancer at the Casino de Paris. Bernardini modeled the bikini, deemed "smaller than the world's smallest bathing suit," on July 5 at the Piscine Molitor. The bikini was a hit, especially among men, and Bernardini received around 50,000 fan letters.


Despite its popularity in Europe, the bikini was resisted in America until the early 1960s when a new emphasis on liberation brought the design to U.S. beaches. The bikini was immortalised by pop singer Brian Hyland's song "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini" in 1960 and the teenage "beach blanket" movies of Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon.


The Female Gaze 

After centuries of impractical, modesty-focused swimwear, the original Jantzen swimsuit, inspired by disabled athlete Annette Kellerman, prioritised comfort and functionality. Kellerman's groundbreaking athletic pursuits liberated women, enabling them to pursue their passion for swimming without the burden of restrictive attire. However, the trajectory of swimwear took a sharp turn when a man capitalised on the opportunity to create a bikini scandal for the sake of thrill and titillation. 


Over the decades, bikini designs from a male perspective became progressively smaller and more revealing, turning beaches into stages for sexual appeal. Women felt compelled to impress men and conform to unrealistic beauty standards. But what if this male-driven narrative had never taken hold? Imagine how different swimwear would be today if it had continued to prioritise women's comfort and empowerment instead of catering to the male gaze. 


Wearing a bikini can symbolise liberation and body positivity, but it can also leave women feeling exposed and vulnerable. By examining the history and motivations behind the swimwear trends we adopt, we can make meaningful choices that empower us to feel comfortable and confident in our own skin. The future of swimwear lies in designs that celebrate women's bodies and prioritise our well-being. The female gaze can lead a meaningful change.