Today's glamorous swimwear styles would have been unthinkable less than a century ago...Instagram: toryburch

Swimming is a form of sport for some, leisure for others, and both for many. It is a skill that one often acquires at a young age, bringing health benefits ranging wider than just fitness, but while today swimming is accompanied by the donning of a swimming costume, bikini, burkhini, or swimming trunks, this has not always been the case.

“It was only in the 1950s that Vogue declared swimwear a state of dress rather than undress.”

There are paintings in antiquity of Greeks and Romans swimming naked or in underwear, with the Ancient Japanese using loin cloths called fundoshi to cover the nether regions of men. Some believe that the myth of the mermaid emerged because women swam so much less than men. Throughout the Middle Ages swimming was discouraged in the Christian West, thought of as somehow immoral. With the rise of European bathing spas such as those at the eponymous Bath, however, this all changed. Post-1670 people no longer bathed nude, but in woven yellow fabrics, as any other colour would be stained by the mineral water. By the eighteenth century bathing gowns were loose, full length, and with full sleeves for women, in order to protect their bodies and thus modesty in congruence with contemporary morality. This corporeal morality was legalised in 1860 when nude swimming became banned for men, who then began wearing calecons or drawers.

Taking a dip in a 1890s swimming costumeInstagram: beabehlen

As coastal leisure rose alongside railway proliferation, bathing gowns became more widespread. Weights were sewn into bathing gowns so that they would remain modest and did not rise up (modern health and safety would have a field day!), and were often a few inches shorter than the fashionable length of daytime dresses. Bathing machines were contraptions to allow women to change into bathing gowns modestly and enter the water discretely in the form of a mobile changing room.

The twentieth century saw the more widespread acceptance of swimming as a legitimate past time for women. With the rise of new fabrics, more comfortable and practical swimwear began to replace the natural water-repelling wool that had dominated previous swimwear. Swimming was popularised in films such as The Water Nymph and Sennett Bathing Beauties.

The focus shifted from taking water to taking the sun in the 1920s: swimwear became more decorative, as necklines plunged, sleeves disappeared, sides were removed, and straps were introduced to allow for the tanning popularised by Coco Chanel. Furthermore, the invention of latex and nylon allowed for figure hugging suits previously unimaginable. Clare Dennis, a competitor in the 1932 Olympics, was almost disqualified for having revealed shoulder blades, indicative of swimwear development surpassing moral norm change rates.

The nuclear test at Bikini Atoll that lent it's name to the now popular two-piece swimming costume.Instagram: woodshole_ocean

Wartime fabric shortages led to the U.S. mandate to reduce beachwear fabric, which resulted in the popularisation of two piece suits with bare midriffs as cotton, wool, silk, nylon and other materials were saved and diverted to the war effort. Swimwear is also linked to war weapon production: the bikini, invented by Reard, is named after the nuclear testing area, Bikini Atoll, due to the garment’s potentially explosive effect on the viewer. So explosive, in fact, that a showgirl was used as the first model as no regular model would wear it. Celebrities such as Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth helped popularise the bikini, and Brigitte Bardot, in Vadim’s And God Created Women, was a benchmark for the bikini on film. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Gernreich’s pubikini did not take off, but Cole’s tankini did – allowing for more coverage than a bikini, but more freedom than a swimsuit.

Today swimwear is hugely diverse. Women in bikinis and swimsuits are still often used in seemingly unrelated product publicity, as are men in swimming trunks. Material evolution continues from Fairhurst’s invention of FastSkin in 2000 for Speedo – the shark-inspired material propelling competitive swimming to new speeds –, to the recent release of Kiniki swimwear which allows for tanning of the skin through material. It was only in the 1950s that Vogue declared swimwear a state of dress rather than undress, and with the countless designs and styles available today, along with publications such as the Sports Illustrated Swimwear Issue, swimwear as fashion continues

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