Here in the Northeast we have put away the woolen underwear some months ago and have brought out the swimwear. From one-piece full-figure suits to the tiniest bikinis, there’s something for just about everyone, but if you wish to make a true fashion statement, you might want to investigate vintage swimwear.
Before the era of modern swimwear, men and women throughout most of history in the West either swam outdoors in the nude, stripped to their underclothes, or didn’t swim at all (during the Middle Ages outdoor bathing and swimming were frowned upon). While men continued to swim nude or in their underclothes, by the 17th century women began to wear clothing to bathing spas, constructed of materials such as canvas, a practice that continued to evolve until the end of the Victorian era. By the beginning of the 20th century, a woman’s bathing costume could cover her from head to toe with up to nine(!) yards of wool. Even men were forced to cover up in public in the name of public modesty, though their costumes were much less restrictive.
Needless to say, such clothing was not only uncomfortable, but especially in regards to women’s fashion, heavy when wet, restrictive of motion, and, thus, dangerous in the water. As more and more people of both sexes in all social strata found they had more leisure time to spend at the beach, small modifications in bathing costumes began to appear, first in France, then elsewhere.
Professional Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman caused a sensation in Boston in 1907 when she appeared on a beach in her one-piece swimsuit. A modified version of a man’s suit, it bared her arms, legs, and neck, and got her arrested for indecent exposure. It was not long, however, before Kellerman began marketing versions of the one-piece, and the race was on to make bathing attire – for both men and women – ever smaller and more comfortable.
Many of these early swimsuits were still being manufactured of wool, but it was not long before rayon, silk, and jersey were introduced in the search for faster drying materials that would hold their shape when wet (and not become transparent). Throughout the ’20s and ’30s, women’s swimwear – whether one- or two-piece – gradually became more decorative and form fitting, while men’s suits eventually dispensed with the tops altogether.
To comply with the mandated 10% reduction in materials used to manufacture swimsuits during war-time rationing of the 1940s, designers shrank the ubiquitous two-piece suit and bared the midriff. The next logical leap in design occurred in 1946 with the introduction of the bikini by French automotive engineer (turned clothing designer) Louis Réard.
At the same time, the one-piece swimsuit was “boning up” (figuratively speaking) to create the classic hour-glass figure of the late ’40s and ’50s. Utilizing boning, zippers, and elastic materials, the one-piece acted like a corset to maximize attributes and minimize flaws, and is the iconic swimwear of “bombshell” actresses of the period.
The post-war period also witnessed the introduction to the markets of a host of new fabrics, from polyester to elastane (Lycra/Spandex), making swimwear ever lighter, stretchable, and more economical to produce. By the 1960s and ’70s, with the emphasis on the “fun” aspects of a day on the beach, two-piece suits sporting colorful palettes and mod prints ruled the day.
A one-size-fits-all attitude now seems to be the norm. Bikinis have grown ever smaller, leaving less and less to the imagination. And the ubiquity of today’s mass produced swimwear has given a certain cachet to vintage.
So, just how valuable are vintage swimsuits? Relative to regular vintage clothing, swimwear in good condition is rare. Pieces were regularly subjected to repeated baths in chlorine pools or bodies of salt water, were bleached by the sun, or were stretched out of shape. And because many were made of wool, if they were not stored properly, they were attacked by moths. The result is that some specimens can easily command several hundreds of dollars each in the secondary markets.
Dating a vintage piece can be problematic, but labels and logos can help: Jantzen, Catalina, and Speedo have all been producing swimwear for over a century and using a resource like the Vintage Fashion Guild (see below) can help identify the date range for any particular company label. And identifying fabrics, familiarizing yourself with the different style periods, and checking for designer labels (Dior or Rudi Gernreich anyone?) can all help identify a special piece to add to your collection.
So, you might want to check those old trunks in the attic full of clothes from your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles – there might be a fashion gem or two to flatter your figure or fatten your wallet. And if you’d like to learn more about vintage swimwear, check out the resources listed below.
The Bikini: A Cultural History, by Patrik Alac
Making Waves, by L. Lencek and G. Bosker
The Swimsuit: A History of Twentieth-Century Fashion, by Sarah Kennedy
Swimwear in Vogue Since 1910, by Christina Probert
Be a Bombshell at the Beach, Go Vintage (Collectors Weekly) – Great photos accompany swimwear expert Pam Fierro’s discussion of the pros and cons of vintage.
The Collectors – Vintage Swimwear.mp4 (YouTube) – Entertaining video showcases Australian Nicole Jenkins’s collection.
Vintage Fashion Guild – Invaluable resource includes a visual label resource (for determining dates), a fashion timeline, a fabric resource guide, and much more.
Vintage Swimsuits, Retro Swimwear & Bathing Suits, Vintage Lingerie (Glamoursurf) – For a general idea of some current values, try Pam Fierro’s retail site.
Vintage Swimwear Expert Pam Fierro Explains How Bathing Suits Got Skimpy (Collectors Weekly) – Great article chock full of info with tips on care and preservation.
Vintage Womens Swimsuits and Swimwear (Collectors Weekly) – A short history accompanied by photos of current pieces up for auction.