A Brief and Incomplete History of the Swimsuit

When you squeeze into your Speedo, you're not just baring your skin -you're celebrating centuries of technological breakthroughs.

3rd Century C.E. Sicilian mosaics depict women wearing bikini-like outfits to exercise, but all Roman swimming is done in the nude.

18th Century Women hit the beach in long formless smocks that hide their shapes. Some women sew lead weights in their hems to make sure the fabric doesn't rise and offs a scandalous glimpse of their calves.

1813 The next time you're lugging gear to the beach, be glad you're not living in the 17th or 18th century. Back then, beachgoers used bathing machines to protect their modesty. Swimmers would step fully dressed into horse-drawn cart topped with a hut. As the horse plodded out into the surf, the swimmer would change into his long-sleeved bathing suit. Only when the cart had reached a suitable distance from the shore would the swimmer emerge to frolic. When finished, he'd climb back into the cart and raise a flag to alert the cart's driver he was ready to head in. As the cart approached the beach,  the swimmer would change back into street clothes and emerge on the sand looking dapper. Was this system a lot of trouble? You Bet! But it was a small price to pay to avoid baring the elbow.

1860 English waters banned men from swimming in the buff, giving rise to the striped knit bathing costume.

Mid-19th Century Ladies began splashing around in baggy flannel pants over loose flannel dresses.

1880 The first recorded "bathing beauty" pageant is held is Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Thomas Edison is a judge!

Kellerman later became the first major movie star to do a nude scene.

1907 Australian synchronized swimmer Annette Kellerman appears in Boston wearing a saucy formfitting one-piece suit with a high neck, knee-length shorts, and short sleeves. She is promptly arrested for indecent exposure. Kellerman counters, "I can't swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothesline." A judge agrees that she needs a suit that offers "unrestricted movement when swimming."

1912 Australian Fanny Durack wears just such an unrestricted suit while breaking the 100-meter world record and winning the first ever gold in women's Olympic swimming. The fashionable Durack goes on to become the female Michael Phelps of her day; at one point, she held the women's world record in every event from the 100 meters to the mile.

1921 The first edition of what will become the Miss America pageant takes place in Atlantic City. Since illustrators are thought to have inside knowledge of the human form, Norman Rockwell judges the swimsuit competition in the 1920s.

The winner was Margaret Gorman, the only contestant not wearing a sash.

1946 French auto engineer and fashion designer Louis Reard crafts a revealing new two-piece suit he dubs the "bikini" after Bikini Atoll, site of many nuclear tests. When no models agree to wear his creation for its debut, Reard is forced to hire an exotic dancer from a Paris casino. The dancer, Micheline Barnardini, briefly becomes as famous as the swimsuit and receives 50,000 pieces of fan mail.

1956 Speedo debuts its famous tiny racing trunks while sponsoring the Australian swim meet at the Melbourne Olympics. Powered by their skimpy suits, the Aussie men take five of six swimming golds.

1957 Brigitte Bardot popularizes the bikini during the Cannes Film Festival, but it takes a few years for the craze to catch on. Modern Girl magazine dismisses the trend, writing, "It is hardly necessary to waste words over the so-called bikini since it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing."

1964 Sports Illustrated debuts its swimsuit issue. Adolescent boys' interest in long-form sports journalism suddenly spikes.

(YouTube link)

1965 Jodie Foster makes her acting debut as the Coppertone baby.

1966 The first written incidence of "skinny dipping" makes a surprisingly late entry into the English language.

1996 Bangalore, India, hosts the Miss World pageant, but local outrage forces the swimsuit competition to be held in the Seychelles instead.

1999 The Miss America pageant changes its swimsuit rules to ban string bikinis and thongs.

2011 Sick of seeing half-naked tourists, Barcelona bans bikinis on streets that aren't adjacent to the beach. Violators face a 300-euro fine.

The article above is from the Scatterbrained section of the June 2013 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission from mental_floss magazine.

Don't forget to feed your brain by subscribing to the magazine and visiting mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog today!

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I was just wondering about this a couple of weeks ago. I googled the history of the bathing suit and there's not much info before the 1800's. I also found that bikini mosaic, but that's it. I wonder about other time periods and civilizations.
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Brings back memories of swimming in the buff at the Syracuse YMCA when I was young, where swim trunks were not allowed. BTW, Speedo is a brand name of swim wear, not a style. I have a pair of Speedo swim trunks, just regular men's swim trunks.
Wish folks would get that straight.
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