A History of 20th Century Swimwear – Part I

To celebrate summer and the fashion that goes along with it, we will talk about the history of swimwear in the 20th century in two parts. This week, we will look at swimwear from the 1910 until the 1950. A period in which women went from wearing complete attires to curve emphasing two-pieces.

Before the 20th century, nobody really “went swimming”. People did bathe in seawater, but mainly  for medical reasons. Even  at the beginning of the 20th century, swimming still was not acceptable for women and their heavy corsets and petticoats certainly did  not allow them.

WWI changed all that, with the men gone to war, women took up physical work. Their lifestyle and fashion changed accordingly. In 1914, Vogue first published an editorial on bathing suits, but throughout the 1910s bathing suits were conservative and covered a lot of skin. They were made of fabrics like wool and silk, were full of detailing and were heavily accessorised, the parasol being a favorite.

The one-piece was first introduced in 1918, but was still considered very avant-garde. It reached down to the knee and was only meant to be uncovered right before the swimmer entered the water.

europeana fashion 1920s swimwear nordiska museet

Two models in swimsuit during swimwear fashion show in Saltsjöbaden, 1929. Collection Nordiska Museet. CC-BY-NC-ND.

In the 1920s travelling became fashionable and going to the beach became a stylish pastime. The popularity of sports also made swimming a favourite activity. The beach became a place to bo seen during glamorous holidays in Palm Beach, Deauville and the Cote d’Azur. Fashion responded with swim suits that were more tailored, slim and bare.

This trend continued and was pushed further in the 1930s. Fitness was a craze, the body had to be tip-top shapein order to show it off in back-baring, low-cut, tight one pieces that allowed for maximum sun exposure and comfortable swimming at the same time. The two-piece, baring the midriff, also entered the stage at ths time, but was still considered daring.

nordiska museet swimwear 1930s europeana fashion

Woman in swimsuit, 1930s. Collection Nordiska Museet. CC-BY-NY-ND.

The bare midriff and a great sun tan became the look du rigueur in the 1940s. Due to wartime fabric shortages, accompanying garments were ditched, but the bathing suit itself became more dressy. The one-piece had now become mainstream and the bottom of the two piece was cut higher on the leg.

emilio pucci swimwear 1940s europeana fashion

Cotton swimsuit by Emilio Pucci, 1949. Collection Fondazione Archivio Emilio Pucci. All rights reserved.

The midriff continued to be more and more exposed during the 1950s. While the decade started with looser more girly bathing suits, they soon become tighter and more curve-emphasizing. Tops were strapless for a bare neckline or boned to increase the body-hugging effect. It was all about the waist and the bosom.

The 1960s represented a huge change in society and culture which was, of course, reflected in fashion. Next week we will look at swimwear from the 1960s onwards.

Next week, we will continue with the history of swimwear 1960s-1980s.
Discover more swimwear in Europeana Fashion.

swimwear pucci 1950s europeana fashion bathing suit

Emilio Pucci, 1956. Collection Fondazione Archivio Emilio Pucci. All rights reserved.




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