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A Brief History of the One Piece Swimsuit

Jun 8, 2008

Credit Goes To Annette

By Pamela Fierro

In the chronicles of fashion, it was the sport of swimming that changed the way women dressed, thought about themselves and the way society thought about women and their role in society.

Annette Kellerman, better known as the 'Australian Mermaid' was the

default founder of the first women’s one piece bathing suit. She was a pioneer in swimming and athletics at a time when these activities were considered indecent for women. Annette began swimming at an early age after her doctor suggested that the activity would help strengthen her. She had been crippled with polio at age two and had to wear leg braces until she was seven. She was only 16 when she held the world record in swimming for 100-meters and then went on to swim in marathons. She left with her father to travel to England in hopes of earning money as a swimmer. She went into Vaudeville where she performed swimming and diving feats, dressed in a figure hugging one piece bathing suit.

In 1907 she traveled to New York but her swimming attire was found to be offensive to American moral sensibilities. Modesty, not practicality, was the prime concern for personal dress and fashion. Annette decided to make her own one piece costume by sewing leggings to her swimsuit which technically conformed to the law. Athletics were considered unfeminine and unhealthy for women and when it came to swimming, mixed bathing was prohibited and obscenity laws required dark, non-form revealing costumes that covered the body from head to toe.

The first bathing costumes for women in the Victorian era consisted of cumbersome dress and pantaloon combinations that prevented American women from swimming. In 1908 at Revere Beach in Massachusetts, Annette was seen in man's bathing costume; a skin tight one piece black suit with short legs that ended well above her knees. "I can't swim wearing more attire than you hang on a clothesline," she exclaimed before walking on to the beach wearing a one piece bathing suit that exposed her shapely form and bare legs. It was an act of defiance that resulted in her arrest and imprisonment for "indecent exposure." Hence, credit goes to Annette for opening the door for designers & manufacturers to begin designing swimwear that enhanced the female form. After this episode swimsuits began the trend of becoming lighter, briefer and more stylish.

In May of 1916, the first annual "Bathing Suit Day" was held at Madison Square Garden in New York City. During the "Roaring 20's" an appreciation for recreation and leisure time was increasing dramatically. The 1930's lead to swimwear garments that were functional, sleek, and streamlined. The early 1930s saw great changes in women's swimwear; they were cut lower in the back and armhole area, and began to take account of feminine curves with a more defined bust line. By the mid-1930s different fabrics other than wool were introduced, including "Lastex", a rubberized yarn, blended into cotton or silk to allow better give to the suit. The 1934 swimsuit hugged the body and was constructed to allow shoulder straps to be lowered for tanning. By the end of the decade, molded-fit suits were introduced, featuring the "nude look."



The "panel suit" was also popular, retaining a small skirt. The 1940's had bathing beauties, pin-up girls and glamour girls wearing high heels and jewelry to accessorize their bathing attire. The most exciting introduction happened on July 5, 1946, when designer Louis Reard introduced a 2-piece creation called the "bikini" at a fashion show in Paris. The suit was named after a few small South Pacific islands called Bikini Atoll. It was proclaimed to be the smallest suit ever and helped comply with the war fabric rations.

In the 1950's swimwear became more structured and offered similar support as undergarments. Bikinis and maillots would come with bandeau-style, strapless tops. We begin to see padding in the bust and modesty panels in the front of the suits. The evolution was a boon for the girl with the less-than-perfect figure who wants to conceal, rather than reveal. In 1958, Spandex was invented and subsequently marketed in 1962 by DuPont as Lycra, revolutionizing the swimwear industry and allowing swimsuit designers to create a more fitted, lightweight swimsuit product.

In the 60's the bikini got smaller, and the Monokini was introduced by Rudi Gernrich. In 1960, Brian Hyland sings "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie

Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," triggering a bikini-buying spree among American teens. In the 70's the Thong made its debut along with Tan-thru swim suits. The 80's brought along the french cut in swimwear, leg openings high cut on the hips. Clearly as the decades have evolved swimwear has seemed to have gotten smaller along with the ability and desire to show more skin. Today some current swimwear designers and manufacturers are pulling vintage designs from the archives and recreating them with modern day technology and materials.

Text copyright by Pamela Fierro

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