There was a time before the bikini: 100 years of swimwear
A new London exhibition is looking back on the history of the humble swimsuit.
Riviera Style: Resort & Swimwear since 1900, now on at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, charts the journey from the knee-length swimming dresses of yesteryear to the ubiquitous string bikinis of today through archival garments and images.
The rise of the resort
"The story really starts with the shift from bathing in Victorian times to swimming," says FTM curator Dennis Nothdruft. "There was this great movement toward activity, and particularly women being more active."
Stripping down for the beach still meant donning long skirts, stockings, and shoes until the 1920s, when fashion designer Coco Chanel's Cote d'Azure escapades convinced fashionable women to stop shunning the sun.
But while the Roaring Twenties have the more scandalous reputation, it wasn't until the 1930's that swimsuits started to look (somewhat) conventionally skimpy, and the two piece made its debut.
"You start to see more and more of what we consider contemporary swimsuits," Nothdruft says. "You start to see cutaway swimsuits -- they cut away the sides at the top -- and they start adding various revealing elements."
By the 1950s, two piece suits were commonplace. Essentially glorified lingerie, they created the same coveted hourglass figure as the decade's restricting shape wear.
"You start to get the sense that swimsuits aren't just for swimming," he says. "All of a sudden it's about shaping the body and creating a silhouette."
The bikini as we know it now made its first appearance in the 1960s, as fashion trends became more youth-oriented, and a more natural silhouette was championed by designers.
"In the 1950s, teenagers looked like their mothers. By the 1960s, mothers wanted to look like their daughters," Nothdruft says.
While the modesty of the post-Victorian swimming outfits is perhaps the most conspicuous difference between then and now, the change in materials is just as stark.
"It's the story of innovation," Nothdruft says. "It really relates to finding materials that respond to the requirements: fitting and getting wet."
Predating modern elastic, early swimsuits were made from knitted cotton and wools that grew heavy and hung uncomfortably when wet.
This would continue on through the 1930s, when elastic yarns -- cottons and wools wrapped with elastic threads -- would take over, only to be usurped by stretch fabrics in the 1950s. (Lycra wouldn't become ubiquitous until the 1980s.)
Modern swimwear landmarks, like the Speedo LZR Racer Suit that was originally banned from the Olympics for giving athletes and unfair advantage, suggest a recent shift from the merely practical to the performance-enhancing.
"What we're showing are some really fantastic developments in swimwear," says Nothdruft. "There are all sorts of innovations in tech and fabric and cut and manipulation."
Does this mean that, from a fashion standpoint, the swimsuit has been taken as far as it can go? It's a possibility.
"It's hard to say what we'll be doing in the future ... I think we've covered everything," he says. "We'll have to start wearing full dresses when we're swimming again. Stockings and shoes..."
Riviera Style: Resort & Swimwear since 1900 is on at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London from May 22 to August 29, 2015.