A fashion model in swimsuit poses on the beach

With beach season upon us, many of you may be focusing on what swimsuits to buy that will best showcase your assets and hide your more indecent attributes (we all have them). But, the history of swimwear is important to understand the looks and influences of today. We are reminded of this history as we just lost Esther Williams this month, a former swimmer and Hollywood actress who helped establish women’s modern swimwear looks.

Before the mid-19th-century, swimming was done in the nude or when wearing garments similar to underwear. In the mid-1800s, the UK banned nudity on beaches, and men’s caleçons were worn with a matching top. Ladies wore a yellow canvas dress, which made swimming difficult. Women’s swimwear evolved into two pieces: a gown and trousers. Beaches were segregated until 1901, and to further discourage indecencies, bathing machines were used so swimmers could change into their swimwear and privately swim, they were only used by the most refined citizens.

In the 1880s, bathing suit contests began popping up on beaches, though they were not considered respectable. When Miss America began in 1921, beauty contests gained a higher regard. Annette Kellerman came to the United States in 1907 and began performing as a synchronized swimmer and diving into glass tanks. Kellerman’s swimsuit was unlike any other women’s suit: one-piece and form-fitting, while revealing legs, arms and neck. She was arrested for indecent exposure, but the style of her suit caught on and women began wearing more revealing swimwear. With the rest of fashion, swimsuit hemlines receded throughout the 1900s. In the 1940s, new fabrics and technology strives allowed for more practical swimwear and styles. At this time, the bikini was invented the pin-up was born. When women wore canvas dresses, little care was taken over the esthetic of their Victorian swimdress. Many attribute Esther Williams’s popularity with swimwear becoming a statement and fashionable consideration.

Born in 1921, Esther Williams first hit the water when her sister would take her to the beach or pools. Williams enjoyed it so much that she took a job at a local pool while taking lessons. At the time, swimming lessons and competitive strokes were mostly taught exclusively to males, but Williams excelled. At the age of 16, she was swimming for the Los Angeles Athletic Club and had three national titles. Williams became known for breaking countless swimming records, including the 300-yard relay and the 100-metre freestyle. After being noticed in a newspaper, Williams was cast in a Broadway show and caught the eye of MGM head Louis B. Mayer. He signed her as an actress and the rest is history. Esther Williams starred in many films with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, most of which involved swimming. She starred in Bathing Beauty, originally titled Mr. Coed as it was initially written to feature her co-star Red Skelton. However, Esther stole the spotlight from Skelton and became the film’s star. Williams was featured in twenty-six other films, including Neptune’s Daughter and Million Dollar Mermaid ( based on the life of Annette Kellerman). Since Williams was often sporting a swimsuit on the big screen, the production crew embellished her swimsuits with designs, jewels and fabrics. As her popularity grew, Williams’s flattering and original swimsuits influenced beach looks, leading women to begin caring about their swimsuit looks and seeking certain styles. In turn, this influenced designers to begin swimwear lines, creating a new element and backdrop for fashion.

In 1955, Christian Dior designed a swimwear line with Cole of California, officially waving swimwear into high fashion. Meanwhile, with celebrities often spotted donning bikinis, such as Bridget Bardot, this skimpier alternative to a one-piece bathing suit was soon found all over beaches internationally, particularly in Europe and North America, proving it was here to stay. From the bikini has come the thong bathing suit, the tankini and the monokini, originally just a women’s swim-trunk, but now a one-piece with cut-outs. Men’s swim-trunks are still common today, but there are also other styles available such as: the Speedo, the thong and the g-string.

This season, women’s swimsuits are making a statement. Fringe was found all over runways for this summer, including the Marchesa Spring 2013 show, and a fringe top can help accentuate a smaller chest, or fashionably cover those areas we may be less boastful about. Other on-trend women’s swimsuit styles this season are floral, metallic, mod and stripes. Men’s suits this season are loud and patterned or covered in geometric designs. Simple is out this season!

Here are some fashionable swimwear choices for all shapes and budgets:

Bronze Beauty | Mod Squad | Lobster | Fab Fringe | Bright Stripes | Deep-V


This piece was written by Rebecca MacDonald, Fashion Columnist at Rhetoric Magazine. Come back for more every Thursday!