May 2017

A century of swim: the evolution of the swimsuit

If there is one piece of clothing that’s evolved more than any other through the decades, it’s the swimming suit.
The bathing suit. The swimsuit. Even the name has changed over time. From full-shade dresses to barely-there bikinis, swimwear has defined the decades with iconic style. Here’s a look back at highlights from the last 100 years.


Early 1900s Seaside Walking Dresses

Image source: Flickr through a Creative Commons license by George Eastman Museum licensed under CC BY 2.0

In the early 1900s, the “seaside walking dress” was the trendy gown to wear on the beach
or when walking the boardwalk.

Annette Kellerman, Pioneer in Women's Swimwear

Image source: Flickr through a Creative Commons license by Photo Library licensed under CC BY 2.0

A pioneer in women’s swimwear, Australian Annette Kellerman invented synchronized swimming.
She was arrested for indecency wearing this bathing suit on a beach near Boston in 1907,
but this suit, sans buttons or a collar, paved the way for the one-piece.


Turkish-style bloomers, often made of flannel (toasty!), transitioned to sailor-inspired frills and stripes.
Even lace-up shoes were worn on the beach!
Turkish-Style Bloomers in 1910
The tide began to turn in 1916, when Jantzen introduced a collection of figure-hugging suits sporting shorter shorts and even cutouts. They changed the term “bathing suit” to “swimming suit” to justify their more revealing suits as athletic.

Jantzen Swimming Suits Advertisement

Source: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Jantzen Swimming Suits.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed April 18, 2017.


Women ditched the long sleeves and skirts to show a little skin, but shorts still had to meet a certain length, or else…

…they would be fined or arrested for wearing one-piece bathing suits without the required leg coverage.

Here’s what the definitive, prize-winning bathing suit looked like in 1922.


The ‘30s brought more form-fitting styles in stretchy synthetic fabrics, with higher-cut legs and lower-cut necklines.
Anita Page and Leila Hyams were actresses from the silent film era.


On July 5, 1946, French model Micheline Bernardini wore the bikini for the first time in Paris. It was marketed
as a two-piece swimming suit that revealed “everything about a girl except her mother’s maiden name.”


Brigitte Bardot starred in the 1952 French film “Manina, the Girl in the Bikini,” one of the first times the bikini appeared in a movie. Movies aside, it was still considered improper to show the navel, which sparked over 50,000 letters protesting the ban. Protestors claimed it couldn’t be called a bikini unless it fit through a wedding ring.


The introduction of nylon and Lycra in the ‘60s made suits tighter than ever,
similar to the costume Yvonne Craig wore in her role as Batgirl in the television series Batman.

Swimsuit in the 1960s, Yvonne Craig in Batgirl Costume

Image source: Flickr through a Creative Commons license Image 1 and Image 2 by Yvonne licensed under CC BY 2.0


Minds expanded and bikinis shrank in the ‘70s, and not surprisingly,
women were showing more midriff than ever before.


With hair slicked down and neon accessories turned up, the ‘80s went wild over prints.
Swimsuits plunged deeper in front and revealed more in back.

Women's Swimsuits - 1980s

Image source: Yaakov Saar [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


The trend navigated toward more athletic designs. Tankinis were introduced,
and the concept of mixing and matching tops, bottoms, and prints became popular.


Borrowing details from decades past, Garnet Hill launched Signature Swimwear, a collection of sophisticated styles highlighting our original prints. We still think the one-piece is the most universally flattering suit of all time.

Garnet Hill Signature Maillot, Summer 2010

Garnet Hill Signature Maillot, Summer 2010

From retro to daring to barely there, what’s your favorite style and decade? We’d love to hear your comments.

Shop the 2017 Swimwear Collection

2 responses to “A century of swim: the evolution of the swimsuit”

  1. Georgia says:

    Really good info

  2. […] Evolution of the Swimsuit: A Century of Swim | Threads by Garnet Hill. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 Apr. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *