Recently I was invited to the Fashion and Textile Museum in London to see their Riviera Style exhibition showcasing the history of swimwear.
It is flippin’ ace in every way – from the Art Deco Lido design, the vintage posters everywhere, the layout and information to the actual swimwear itself. They have just extended it for another week, until the 13th September so if you get a chance GO! But for those of you who can’t, here are my favourite costumes by era.
Bathing became a recreational hobby in the mid 19th century with people enjoying the sea, however what they wore was more like clothing than the swimwear we know today. Women wore a bathing dress which pretty much covered her body with bloomers, stockings, hat and boots as well as an over dress. Interestingly as beaches were segregated, it was fine for men to swim naked.
Alas after the sea, their clothes were heavy as many were made from flannel. However by the 1890s silks, wools and cottons were used in mainly dark colours incase they became transparent. In 1907 the Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman removed the skirt and stitched stockings onto her outfit, creating an all in one. This influenced ready to wear versions with detachable skirts and shorter sleeves, very similar to what the men were wearing.
Then again, most people in the Edwardian era couldn’t afford to hire swimwear so chose to paddle in the sea by hitching their clothes up!
In the 1920s into the 1930s more and more people enjoyed visiting the Lido, swimming pool and of course, the beach, but by now they were wearing less. Attitudes to dressing became more relaxed in general, so even the clothes worn to the beach became less formal. Women wore brightly coloured beach pyjamas which were stylish and very fashionable (I’d wear them now!) and men wore separates.
Up until the 1930s, men were required by law to cover their torso so wore costumes, however they often had cut out sections. Women started to wear two pieces (who knew the bikini was introduced well before the late 1940s?) but the trunk part was worn high to cover the navel. In fact most women wore small skirts to cover the groin area to protect her modesty.
Most people wore wool suits in the 1920s, with new fabrics introduced in the 1930s such as elastic based threads wound round cottons and silks to make lastex. But swimwear made from this “miracle yarn” was too expensive for most. Many underwear manufacturers cottoned onto to this trend and started to produce their own swimwear. It wasn’t until 1938 that the Holidays With Pay Act was introduced, resulting in workers getting one weeks paid leave every year. Billy Butlin opened his first holiday camp in 1936 so everyone had somewhere to show off their new fashions, dreaming that they were on the Mediterranean Riviera.
Now the underwear manufacturers were involved, swimwear became more corseted to enhance women’s curves, just as the fashion became more fit and flare. This allowed for strapless styles with back zips, allowing more of a sun tan which also was becoming more fashionable.
Of course, during the war it was deemed non essential to make swimwear so most hand knitted their own, harking back to previous decades. The bikini was introduced in Paris in 1946 by Louis Reard, but most didn’t wear one until later in the 1960s.
After the war, nylon was used as it dried easily and was light weight, but also people wore shiny satins as well as cotton and rayon. Swimwear had gone glamorous, and with Butlins introducing the Beauty Queen pageants where contestants wore their best swimming costume, swimwear never looked back. Bright colours, ruffles and flattering shapes were what every woman wanted. With more people going on holiday than ever, dresses were made in light floral fabrics with new playsuits with over skirts added. Even square silk scarves were adorned with seaside and riviera images – the original souvenir scarves.
1960s and 1970s
The 1960s onwards saw a massive change in swimwear, especially due to new amazing fabrics such as elastane which meant they fitted better than ever. It also meant different shapes and sizes could be made resulting in better fit and style for everyone. More and more people were going on their first package holidays and wanted a fashionable look that differed from their parents.
Bikinis became the norm with high waisted almost short like trunks and halterneck tops. Swimwear was highly patterned too, with colours and flowers to match the rest of the flower power fashion. Palazzo pants and wrap arounds became sought after in matching psychedelic prints with designers such as Pucci leading the way.
Men’s swimwear was getting smaller! While they started the 1960s with high waisted shorts, they ended the 1970s with tiny trunks made by Speedo.
1980s and 1990s
The 1980s saw women’s swimwear go super small with low cut plunging tops and high legged costumes which left little to the imagination. Patterns were dropped, with plain colours preferred. Thongs even were seen, and topless sunbathing became acceptable. Body shaping through internal corsettry was long forgotten as these 1980s costumes didn’t help to hide or lift – it was felt that the body conscience 1980s women didn’t need it.
The 1990s saw another large change with the introduction of speed enhancing materials for swimming or wet suit type material for surfing. Patterns were back in fashion, with Hawaii style flowers to continue the surf trend. They even introduced material which you could tan through. Plus padded cups, tummy control, and even a comfy cup for men were all designed and soon became the norm.
So which era was your favourite? I so love the 1950s leisure wear but then again I also love the 1970s Pucci prints. This was my favourite though: a 1950s playsuit.
And I also enjoyed shopping on the way out. I couldn’t resist this bathers brooch by Lou Taylor which will always remind me of this wonderful exhibition.
So get yourself down there if you can! All details can be found HERE.
p.s. Liked this blog? Then why not vote for me at the Amara Interior Awards! I need your votes as I am up against some amazing bloggers! You can vote HERE!
p.p.s. Has today’s blog got you in the holiday mood? Even though summer is over, have a look at this article I wrote for Vintage Life magazine all about the way we holidayed over the last 50 years, called We’re all going on a summer holiday.