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A history of the swimsuit
When you’re ready to jump in the pool — here’s a bit of history on the evolution of the suit you’re wearing

A two-piece bathing gown from the 1850s.

Swimsuits can be skin-tight or loosely fitting and range from garments designed to preserve as much modesty as possible to garments designed to reveal as much of the body as possible without actual nudity.

Men’s swimsuit styles tend to be shorts, trunks, boardshorts, jammers, speedo-style briefs, thongs or cut-off jeans. Women’s swimsuits are generally either one-piece swimsuits, bikinis or thongs.

Special swimsuits for competitive swimming, designed to reduce skin drag, can resemble unitards. For some kinds of swimming and diving, special bodysuits called diveskins are worn. These suits are made from spandex and provide little thermal protection, but they do protect the skin from stings and abrasion. Most competitive swimmers also wear special swimsuits including partial and full bodysuits, racerback styles, jammers and racing briefs to assist their glide through the water and gain speed advantages.

By the 1930s men’s and women’s swimwear had become less restrictive, but still fairly modest.

In ancient times
In classical antiquity swimming and bathing was most often done nude. In some settings coverings were used. Murals at Pompeii show women wearing two-piece suits covering the areas around their breasts and hips in a fashion remarkably similar to bikinis of the 1960s. After this, the notion of special water apparel seems to have been lost for centuries.
In the 18th century

During this period women often wore “bathing gowns” in the water; these were long dresses of fabrics that would not become transparent when wet, with weights sewn into the hems so that they would not rise up in the water. The men’s swimsuit, a rather form-fitting wool garment with long sleeves and legs similar to long underwear, was developed and would change little for a century.

In the 19th century
By this time the woman’s two piece suit became common — the two pieces being a gown from shoulder to knees plus a set of trousers with leggings going down to the ankles.

Men’s swimwear was decidedly more daring by the 1940s — but some modesty remained: note how igh the trunks ride on the hips.

In the Victorian era
Popular beach resorts were commonly equipped with rolling bathing machines designed to avoid the exposure of people in swimsuits, especially to people of the opposite sex. In 1907 the swimmer Annette Kellerman from Australia visited the United States as an “underwater ballerina,” a version of synchronized swimming involving diving into glass tanks. She was arrested for indecent exposure because her swimsuit showed arms, legs and the neck.

A woman’s one-piece glamour swimsuit from the 1950s.

Restrictions loosening
As fashion evolved throughout the 20th century, bathing wear slowly became less conservative, first uncovering the arms and then the legs up to mid-thigh. Collars receded from up around the neck down to about mid-way between the neck and nipples. The development of new fabrics allowed for new varieties of more comfortable and practical swimwear.

Due to the figure-hugging nature of these garments, glamour photography since the 1940s and 1950s often featured people wearing swimsuits. This subset of glamour photography eventually evolved into swimsuit photography with the help of Sports Illustrated and swimsuit photographers around the world.

By the end of the late 20th century and the early 21st century low-riding boardshorts became extremely popular with many American men.

The first bikinis were introduced just after World War II. Early examples were not very different from the women’s two pieces common since the 1920s, except that they had a gap below the breast line allowing for a section of bare midriff. They were named after Bikini Atoll, the site of several nuclear weapons tests, for their supposed explosive effect on the viewer.

Through the 1950s, it was thought proper for the lower part of the bikini to come up high enough to cover the navel. From the 1960s on, the bikini shrank in all directions until it sometimes covered little more than the nipples and genitalia, although less revealing models giving more support to the breasts remained popular.

For women, a colorful two-piece bikini has been a staple throughout recent contemporary history.

At the same time, fashion designer Rudi Gernreich introduced the monokini, a topless suit for women consisting of a modest bottom supported by two thin straps. Although not a commercial success, the suit opened eyes to new design possibilities. In the 1980s the thong or “tanga” came out of Brazil, said to have been inspired by traditional garments of native tribes in the Amazon. However, the one-piece suit continued to be popular for its more modest approach.

Men’s swimsuits developed roughly in parallel to women’s during this period, with the shorts covering progressively less. Eventually racing-style “speedo” suits became popular — and not just for their speed advantages. Thongs were often seen among the more daring and provocative crowds.

Today the speedo continues to be popular in Europe and some countries in South America. It is considered by some in the United States to be too revealing, though it is favored by many gay men.

By the 1990s and into the 21st century longer and baggier shorts became popular, with the hems often reaching to the knees. Perhaps due to the greater weight of these suits when wet, or perhaps from sheer daring, they were often worn lower on the hips than regular shorts.

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