A Brief History of the Bathing Suit

On July 5th, 1946 the bikini hit shelves and changed Florida’s beaches forever. In honor of the 69th anniversary of this momentous event, we’re taking a look at the history of the bathing suit!

The first stop on our timeline is in the 18th century (though there’s proof people were using bathing suits as far back as Ancient Rome). According to Smithsonianladies often wore “bathing gowns” in the water, which was just what it sounds like, a long dress meant to modestly cover women, even when wet. It is thought that women even put weights in the dress so it wouldn’t float up!

This modest bathing fashion continued well on into the early 20th century, as these Florida photos demonstrate:

Lady in white reclining on the beach - Palm Beach, Florida

Lady in white reclining on the beach — Palm Beach (1896).

 

People at the beach - Palm Beach, Florida

People at the beach – Palm Beach (ca.1900s).

 

Quartette of northern visitors - Daytona Beach, Florida

Quartette of northern visitors — Daytona Beach (1909).

Bloomers, adapted for water, worn with tunics and black stockings became popular around the turn of the 20th century. However they were made of heavy material such as wool or flannel, that made it difficult for women to comfortably navigate the water.

Young woman in a bathing suit

Young woman in a bathing suit (1916).

 

Myrtle Ola Roth and sister Allie Harold at the beach - Miami Beach, Florida

Myrtle Ola Roth and sister Allie Harold at the beach — Miami Beach (ca.1920s).

 

People on the beach - Daytona Beach, Florida

People on the beach — Daytona Beach (1909).

 

SCANDAL! In 1907, Annette Kellerman, famed for becoming the first woman to swim across the English Channel, was arrested in Boston for wearing a one-piece, form-fitting suit.  The arrest was not an isolated incident and what followed was women’s bathing suits showing more and more skin on beaches across the world.

 

Young women enjoying a day at the beach together - Miami Beach, Florida

Young women enjoying a day at the beach together — Miami Beach (1925).

 

Publicity photograph regarding bathing suit restrictions - Miami, Florida

Publicity photograph regarding bathing suit restrictions — Miami (ca.1920s).

 

In 1938, the strapless bathing suit made its first debut in Miami Beach.

 

Strapless bathing suits making their debut - Miami Beach, Florida

Strapless bathing suits making their debut — Miami Beach (1938)

 

And then came the “bomb” that would change swimming fashion forever. On July 5th, 1946 the bikini made its explosive debut at a Paris fashion show. French engineer Louis Réard invented the scandalous two-piece, midriff-bearing bathing suit, rumored to be named after the recent atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll, because it too would explode.

 

Elsie Anderson and Florence Lainhart - West Palm Beach

Elsie Anderson and Florence Lainhart — West Palm Beach (1946)

 

The bikini took some time to catch on, but soon it was all over beaches and a part of popular culture (More from the Florida Photographic Collection).

 

Sarasota Sun-Debs being given lessons in descending stairs at Lido Beach, Florida.

Sarasota Sun-Debs being given lessons in descending stairs at Lido Beach (1949).

 

Four bikini clad women frolicking on the beach - Pensacola, Florida

Four bikini clad women frolicking on the beach — Pensacola (1969).

 

Today, bathing suits come in all shapes, patterns and sizes. Whatever suit you like best, summer is a great time to put it on and enjoy one of Florida’s many beaches, rivers, springs, and lakes!

Ladies pose on Miami Beach wearing swimsuits made of straw, tarpon shell, gold mesh, palm fronds, alligator hide, rubber, coral, starfish, and seashells (1937).

Ladies pose on Miami Beach wearing swimsuits made of straw, tarpon shell, gold mesh, palm fronds, alligator hide, rubber, coral, starfish, and seashells (1937).