Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Focus On: Swimsuits

By Sherri, sewbettyanddot

You're going to Hawaii...what are you packing? A swimsuit? A bathing suit? A swimming suit? No matter what you call it, swimwear as we know it has evolved over a relatively short period of time. For centuries, anyone going into the water went in nude (though there is actually artwork from ancient Sicily showing women doing some sort of sport, and they're wearing what looks remarkably like a modern bikini).

It would be centuries before women were seen in anything approaching a "bathing costume" (rumor has it that before the nineteenth century our forebears didn't go near water much, even for cleanliness purposes, let alone recreational ones; even when bathing, women often wore their thin shifts while in the water). While therapeutic spas (such as Bath in England) became popular in Europe in the eighteenth century, it wasn't until the mid-1800s that people began to enjoy recreational swimming (usually in the ocean). "Bathing machines" protected women's privacy: they were essentially little huts that were pulled into the water by horses, allowing ladies to enjoy the water without being seen. Bathing costumes were full-length tunic-like garments usually made of wool and worn with bloomers, a garment made popular by Amelia Bloomer, a suffrage and temperance activist (who knew?). As you might expect, wet wool didn't lend itself to an enjoyable swimming experience!

In 1907 Australian swimmer and actress Annette Kellerman caused a stir in Boston when she wore a form-fitting suit--like a unitard--and she was promptly arrested for indecency (fun fact: Esther Williams portrayed her in the 1952 film Million Dollar Mermaid).
Annette Kellerman in the form-fitting swimsuit that led to her arrest for indecency in 1907. (photo: Library of Congress via Wikipedia)
After that, women's swimsuits began to expose more flesh. Suits were made of knitted wool (a bit stretchy when wet!): in fact, Jantzen, Cole of California, and Catalina, big names in American swimwear, began life as knitting mills. In the 1930s, Lastex (a fabric that included elastic threads in the weave) was invented and used for swimsuits AND girdles, and the bathing suit was changed forever.  

The French also changed swimwear for good when, in 1946, designer Louis Reard presented the somewhat risque "Bikini" (named after the Bikini Atoll, site of the first nuclear test); it was modeled by an exotic dancer from the Casino de Paris because no fashion model would be seen in it. (Jacques Heim actually showed a version of the bikini he called the "Atome" earlier in 1946).

Sources: Wikipedia, Smithsonian.com, Vintage Fashion Guild

Today women have a wealth of choices when it comes to swimwear, from the skimpiest bikini to more modest maillots and the hybrid tankini. We've come a long way, baby!

Now let's look at some lovely vintage swimsuit patterns from members of the Pattern Patter team!

Top row (left to right): Victorian bathing suit: MantuaMakerPatterns

Boy shorts? A monokini? Shirred one-piece or bandeau bikini? Which swimsuit floats YOUR boat? Tell us in the comments!


  1. Superb!! Thanks for all the hard work that went into this post. Well done! I shared :)

  2. So many wonderful bathing suits! Thank you for including mine!

  3. Great Article for Summer! I can not imagine swimming in WOOL! I prefer the simple one piece myself.

  4. I love the asymmetrical strap option on Hollywood 1581; love the cape coverup on Simplicity 3087, although I'm not sure how that skirt would be in the water. I might be most likely to wear the Stretch and Sew 1395 monokini. All great finds, lots of variety here!

  5. Wonderfully informative blog. Thanks for sharing (and for including one of my patterns).

  6. Swimsuits show the evolution of fashion through the years. Always so much fun reading your posts!

  7. Fun info! I have always loved the monokini, reminds of something a James Bond girl would wear. John Kloss always designs some great timeless swimsuits. Great article Sherri!

  8. I don't think I'd be swimming much if I had to wear wool! But...my bikini days are behind me. Thank goodness there are lots of choices in between. Bonus - if you make it yourself no more of the dreaded change room mirrors with bad lighting!

  9. How fun and so many great facts.

    We HAVE come a long way baby!

    Great post and thanks for sharing

  10. Great collection of "swimming costumes" through the decades! Thanks for doing such extensive research.

  11. Very good written article. It will be supportive to anyone who utilizes it, including me. Keep doing what you are doing – can’r wait to read more posts.
    plus size women swimsuits