The history of the swimsuit is a story of the changes in social mores and values that have accompanied the growth of civilization from ancient Greece to the modern era. Beginning in an era when swimming in the nude was not only common but also completely socially acceptable, the swimsuit has traveled through several different styles and designs, meant to both conceal and display, to excite and mollify. Given its rather revealing and, at times, erotic nature, it is not surprising that the history of the swimsuit can be closely linked to a classic Freudian statement. The famous psychoanalyst once suggested that “the progressive concealment of the body which goes along with civilization keeps sexual curiosity awake.” As the world has progressed throughout history, the swimsuit has always maintained a somewhat exciting presence in its combined purposes of revealing and concealing. In many ways, the swimsuit is so titillating a piece of clothing because it is—and always has been—the most revealing, socially appropriate clothing worn by either men or women.
The swimsuit began its history in ancient Greece where public bathing was quite popular among women of luxury and beauty. The practice of public bathing, however, would become immensely more popular and widespread centuries later during the height of the Roman Empire. We have a general knowledge of ancient Roman swimwear as showcased in a mosaic wall from a classical Sicilian villa that displays young Roman women wearing revealing bathing costumes that look surprisingly similar to the modern-day bikini.
At the fall of the Roman Empire, the revealing nature of swimsuits would change radically. In the western world, public bathing largely fell out of style for several hundred years, and, naturally, swimsuits were also abandoned.
In the early 18th century, the practice of public bathing was rejuvenated, and both men and women began to spend time in natural springs, wearing toga-like swimsuits. These somewhat classical swimsuits, throwbacks to the Roman era, quickly died out, and European women began spending time on the beach in heavy woolen dresses, complete with stockings, shoes, and hats. Wool was chosen as a fabric because it would remain modestly opaque when wet.
The practice of public bathing quickly gained popularity in the United States, and the history of the swimsuit now turns there. The cumbersome nature of the woolen swimsuit inspired a tighter-fitting, yet still modest, swimsuit in the early 1900s. This swimsuit consisted of a leotard-type top with shorts, bathing socks, and a hat to accompany the leotard. The knees and arms were revealed in this swimsuit for the first time since the swimsuits of ancient Rome.
The 1920s and the social revolution for women that marked the decade saw a revolution of equal merits for the swimsuit. The long, concealing swimsuits of the past were abandoned in favor of flirtier, more revealing swimsuits, inspired by dressmakers. The suits boasted lower necklines, tighter waists, and shorter skirts. The skirt left the legs entirely bare for the first time. This style of suit would inspire the swimsuit of the 1930s, which consisted of an even lower neckline and tight-fitting, belted shorts. Another 1930s swimsuit innovation was the baring of the back for the first time.
The style of the 1930s swimsuit remained in vogue for quite some time as the Great Depression and World War II rocked the United States. As fewer and fewer people could afford the luxury of swimming, new fashions in swimwear declined. The post-war United States, however, would see the most shocking innovation in swimwear in the bikini, the most revealing swimsuit yet unveiled.
With a booming economy and the tranquility of the 1950s, the swimsuit once again gained in popularity. While the bikini became ever more popular, fashion designers continued to revamp the traditional one-piece swimsuit. In the 1960s, see-through netting at the neck and sides of one-piece suits shocked conservatives. The 1970s saw the lowering of the neckline and a leg cut above the hips. While these new innovations may seem somewhat banal in our day of thong bikinis, they were revolutionary measures in their time. Designers in the 1980s experimented with new types of prints and fabrics, including shiny metallic, glitter, and animal prints.
In the modern era, one-piece swimsuits are pushing the envelope ever more as designers continue to experiment with style and cut in the balance between concealment and exposure. The latest models for 2005 include one-piece swimsuits with strategically placed cutouts, concealing only the barest of essentials. As the swimsuit has passed through millennia of history, the delicate balance between titillation and concealment inspired by the bathing garment has continued to grow ever more delicate.
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