The summer months mark the return of the swimsuit to pools, beaches, and parks. From the development of the American modern bathing costume in the nineteenth century to today, the swimsuit has been a clothing item tethered to societal standards of modesty, as well as fashion trends and personal preferences.
According to the fashion arts and textile curator Cynthia Amnéus, bathing—frolicking or dunking in water—became an activity of pleasure in the United States due to the expansion of the middle class in the third quarter of the nineteenth century (160). She elaborated that the sport of swimming was reserved for men, since the Victorian beliefs in the passivity and modesty of women made it an unladylike activity (Amnéus, 160). The bathing costumes of the mid-1800s for women reflected this sentiment by obscuring the female form. Women wore long sleeve, high neck dresses with a full skirt that fell just above the ankles. Trousers were worn underneath. Victorian men wore two-piece bathing suits comprised of a tunic and shorts.
Winslow Homer, The Bathers, 1873, Brooklyn Museum
Over time, the sleeves, skirts, tunics, and shorts of both women and men’s swimwear became shorter and shorter. Arms and thighs were revealed! Swimming became an activity for all, not just men. By 1925, American men and women wore very similar tunic and shorts bathing suits (Amnéus, 163). It did not stop there. Victorian ideas about modesty and an aversion to tanning were thrown out the window, and swimming attire became form fitting as it continued to shrink. The 1930s saw the development of new fabrics for example nylon that allowed suits to be snug with low-cut necklines (Wikipedia: Bikini). For women, the iconic bikini was invented in Paris in 1946 and was soon seen around the world. Its inventor, Louis Réard, thought the two-piece bathing suit that exposes a lady’s midriff would shock or surprise the viewer like the atomic bomb had done the year before at Bikini Atoll (Wikipedia: Bikini). Today, several different swimsuit types coexist such as bikinis, bodyskins, tanks, and trunks, giving the wearer a freedom of choice.
Tod Papageorge, Woman in Bikini with Radio, Central Park, 1982,
The Museum of Modern Art
The libraries of the New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC) have several items related to the history of the bathing suit and its representation in art. See the citations and links listed below. Maybe they will inspire your summer swim ensemble!
Books of interest:
Amnéus, Cynthia. “The Beach from Bathing Costume to Swimming Suit: A Brief History of Swimwear.” Eternal Summer: The Art of Edward Henry Potthast. Cincinnati, OH: Cincinnati Art Museum, 2013. 160–193. Print.
Kidwell, Claudia Brush. Women’s Bathing and Swimming Costume in the United States. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1968. Print.
Martin, Richard. Splash!: A History of Swimwear. New York: Rizzoli, 1990. Print.
Tampa Museum of Art. At the Water’s Edge: 19th and 20th Century American Beach Scenes. Tampa, Florida: Tampa Museum of Art, 1989. Print.
Related subjects at NYARC institutions:
Suz Massen, Chief of Public Services, Frick Art Reference Library