The Evolution of Women’s Swimwear: From Scrutiny to Skimpy

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Today’s beaches and pool decks are practically littered with ladies sporting sexy swimwear. Indeed, the modern woman can choose any swimwear she wants, from a hydrodynamic bodysuit racing system to a casual “tankini” to a decidedly more risqué outfit. As late as the middle of the 20th century, women’s swimwear was still as conservative as the Texas legislature. Everything changed in the year 1946, when a Frenchman named Louis Réard introduced the first bikini, named for the Bikini Atoll, an atomic bomb test site. Let’s take a look at the history of aquatic apparel before that “bombshell” moment, and what has happened in its wake.

5 The Form-Fitting One Piece

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Believe it or not, in the first few years of the 20th century, the woman pictured here, Aussie performer Annette Kellerman, was arrested in Massachusetts for wearing too-lewd of a swimsuit. This swimwear, comically conservative by today’s standards, revealed the form of her body beneath its ample coverage, and thus was unacceptable to the local authorities. Fortunately for female swimmers and sunbathers everywhere, shortly after the turn of the century, things were beginning to change. The neck to ankle sack-like garments of old were soon to be little more than comic fodder.

4 The Two-Piece

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By the 1940s, women were wearing bathing suits that were at least recognizable to the modern era. The one piece had become tighter and smaller, without pointless sleeves or ridiculously high necklines. And two-piece bathing suits were common by the time WWII broke out, though they still tended to feature large bottoms with waistlines set well above the navel. No designer had quite figured out the two most important factors of female swimwear: 1.) Less is more when it comes to ease of swimming. 2.) Less is more when it comes to looking great on the beach.

3 The Bikini

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Louis Réard, an engineer by training but a visionary fashion designer by trade, should be considered a hero of both the Women’s Liberation Movement as well as the Movement of Horny Teenage Boys. On July 5th, 1946, Réard debuted the world’s first bikini at a fashion show in Paris (actually, a model named Micheline Bernardini debuted the suit he had designed, we should clarify… he was by then a 48 year old man and would have had no business wearing his creation). The tiny swimsuits were an immediate hit, and the world of fashionable swimwear has never been the same since.

2 Bikinis in Cinema

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In 1962, the first official James Bond film, Dr. No, featured actress Ursula Andress, playing the excellently-named character Honey Ryder. When Andress emerged from the waves wearing a sleek, fashionable white bikini, the bar for sexy swimwear was set for years to come. In the very first installment of what would become one of the most iconic film franchises of all time, the most iconic swimwear of the era was featured front and center.

1 Modern Swimwear

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Today, the sky is the limit for beachgoers and runway fashion models alike when it comes to swimsuit designs. Ladies are free to sport everything from tankinis to trikinis to microkinis to sexy one piece suits to strange outfits designed by those clearly living on the fringe. Many “high fashion” suits of the day have reversed course on minimalist logic and are made from cloths that can’t in fact get wet or feature design elements that would greatly hamper any actual swimming. In short, modern day swimwear has become sex-infused high fashion, with many suits merely skirting nudity laws by an inch or two—not that we’re complaining.

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