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).

Butler Beach and Jim Crow

Millions of visitors and locals alike enjoy Florida’s beaches every year, along with the public facilities built to enhance them. That privilege was restricted for many years, however, by Jim Crow laws that prohibited African-Americans from sharing those beaches with their fellow citizens who were white. In some areas, public authorities provided separate beaches designated for use by African-Americans, such as Miami’s Virginia Beach, shown below.

A woman stands by the sign for Virginia Beach in Miami, which was designated for African-American use only. The sign had been blown down in a recent storm (1950).

A woman stands by the sign for Virginia Beach in Miami, which was designated for African-American use only. The sign had been blown down in a recent storm (1950).

Elsewhere, private individuals took the initiative. African-American businessman Frank B. Butler responded to beach segregation in northeast Florida by purchasing and opening his own beach on Anastasia Island.

An interior view of the Palace Market in the predominantly African-American Lincolnville district of St. Augustine.  Owner Frank B. Butler stands at right (circa 1930s).

An interior view of the Palace Market in the predominantly African-American Lincolnville district of St. Augustine. Owner Frank B. Butler stands at right (circa 1930s).

Butler, who owned the Palace Market in the Lincolnville district of St. Augustine, began buying land on Anastasia Island in 1927.  Over time, he developed a residential subdivision, casino, motel, and beach resort for African-Americans.  By 1948, at least eleven African-American-owned businesses operated in the area, and “Butler Beach” was a thriving tourist attraction.  This was reputedly the only beach between Jacksonville and Daytona that African-Americans were allowed to use.  These photos depict Butler Beach at the height of its popularity in the 1950s.

Cars pack the parking area at Butler Beach, as visitors enjoy a sunny day on Florida's Atlantic coast (circa 1950s).

Cars pack the parking area at Butler Beach, as visitors enjoy a sunny day on Florida’s Atlantic coast (circa 1950s).

Visitors pose in front of the bath house at Butler Beach on Anastasia Island (circa 1950s).

Visitors pose in front of the bath house at Butler Beach on Anastasia Island (circa 1950s).

The lifeguard station at Butler Beach (circa 1950s).

The lifeguard station at Butler Beach (circa 1950s).

Later, Butler Beach was operated by the Florida Park Service.  Eventually, St. Johns County took over the park, which it still operates today for the enjoyment of all citizens (circa 1960s).

Later, Butler Beach was operated by the Florida Park Service. Eventually, St. Johns County took over the park, which it still operates today for the enjoyment of all citizens (circa 1960s).

 

Teachers, you may find our Black History Month resource guide to be helpful when planning for lessons about civil rights, Jim Crow segregation, or other aspects of the African-American experience in the United States.

 

Greetings from Florida!

Happy National Tourism Day! Whether you just want to lay out on the beach, see Mickey and Minnie, or take a walk through the past, Florida is the perfect vacation destination.

When you’re here, make sure to tell your loved ones how much fun you’re having, and show off a little by sending a postcard! We’ve chosen some of our favorites from the Postcard Collection! Do you have a favorite?

Florida - the sunshine state

Florida – the Sunshine State

 

When the Yankees come to Florida

When the Yankees come to Florida

 

Bathing beauties on the beach in Florida

Bathing beauties on the beach in Florida

 

Greetings from Florida

The Box of Oranges I Promised you from the Sunshine State, Florida

 

 

Enjoying "The Pause that Refreshes" underwater at Silver Springs.

Enjoying “The Pause that Refreshes” underwater at Silver Springs

 

Tropical beauty in McKee Jungle Gardens

Tropical beauty in McKee Jungle Gardens

 

Where humans are caged and monkeys run wild

Where humans are caged and monkeys run wild

 

 

 

 

Fall into Fall in Florida

Happy Fall! We’d like to take a moment to remind you why Florida is so wonderful this time of year…

Up North, the leaves are turning brown, but in Florida…

Sanibel Island, ca. 1980

Sanibel Island, ca. 1980

Coconut palm on Hutchinson Island, 1992

Coconut palm on Hutchinson Island, 1992

Up North, the skies are turning gray, but in Florida…

Everglades City, ca. 1990

Everglades City, ca. 1990

Key West, 1979

Key West, 1979

Up North, people are airing out their sweaters and scarves, but in Florida…

Young women at the beach, ca. 1950

Young women at the beach, ca. 1950

Young women running on the beach, Pensacola, 1969

Young women running on the beach, Pensacola, 1969

Cocoa Beach, ca. 1990

Cocoa Beach, ca. 1990

Because in Florida there’s always… Year ‘Round Bathing!

Florida-themed postcard, postmarked 1945

Florida-themed postcard, postmarked 1945

Up North, folks are eagerly awaiting the start of ski season. In Florida, our ski season lasts all year…

Skiing down a sand hill, Fort Meade, 1951

Skiing down a sand hill, Fort Meade, 1951

Water skiers perform at Cypress Gardens, Winter Haven, 1955

Water skiers perform at Cypress Gardens, Winter Haven, 1955

And while our friends up North are warming their bones next to the fireplace, we like to have bonfires… on the beach.

Bonfire at the beach, ca. 1960

Bonfire at the beach, ca. 1960

So, this fall, just remember: when you need it bad, we’ve got it good!

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