Fashion: The story of swimwear

The story of swimwear is one of changing shapes, attitudes and technology. Abigail
Turner charts the evolution of swimming fashion. Yorkshire, the birthplace of
quintessentially British brand Marks & Spencer, is the ideal place to start a
journey through the history of swimwear. The M&S Company Archive at the University
of Leeds has everything from knitted woollen costumes from the 1930s to body-
enhancing swimwear of the 1990s, exploring the story of swimwear through film,
adverts and the garments themselves.

Leeds City Museums has been working with the M&S Archive on swimwear talks and
displays, explaining the history of fashion, the influence of the changing seasons
and the fascinating parallels between fashion and evolving society. Curator of
exhibitions Ruth Martin says: “The evolution of swimwear and the clothes we wear on
holiday reflect some big changes in society over the years, particularly in our
attitudes towards gender, propriety and body confidence.”

It was for medicinal reasons that the fashionable took to seawater. In the 19th
century, taking a dip from bathing machines became popular, involving immersion but
not swimming in the briny deep, clad in heavy silk or woollen swimsuits, as a cure
for illness. However, the 1900s brought a change in attitude. As mixed bathing
became more acceptable during the Edwardian period, ladies took to walking more
openly in their bathing costumes, although professional Australian swimmer Annette
Kellerman was arrested in 1907 for appearing at Boston’s Revere Beach in a one-piece
bathing suit that revealed her arms, legs and voluptuous body. She later launched
her own line of one-piece bathing suits for women.

Leeds City Museums has been working with the M&S Archive on swimwear talks and
displays, explaining the history of fashion, the influence of the changing seasons
and the fascinating parallels between fashion and evolving society. Curator of
exhibitions Ruth Martin says: “The evolution of swimwear and the clothes we wear on
holiday reflect some big changes in society over the years, particularly in our
attitudes towards gender, propriety and body confidence.” It was for medicinal
reasons that the fashionable took to seawater. In the 19th century, taking a dip
from bathing machines became popular, involving immersion but not swimming in the
briny deep, clad in heavy silk or woollen swimsuits, as a cure for illness. However,
the 1900s brought a change in attitude. As mixed bathing became more acceptable
during the Edwardian period, ladies took to walking more openly in their bathing
costumes, although professional Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested in
1907 for appearing at Boston’s Revere Beach in a one-piece bathing suit that
revealed her arms, legs and voluptuous body. She later launched her own line of
one-piece bathing suits for women.

Vogue in 1920 said: “The modern girl is triumphant. She can wear anything she wants
to wear, but if she is wise, she will be careful not let her freedom go to her head.

After all, the bathing suit tells a more honest story than any other form of dress.
” The 1930s saw another transformation in swimwear fashion. The tan became a status
symbol, championed by Coco Chanel, as was the desire for a fit physique. Costumes
became smaller, tighter and more revealing, so the body needed to look trimmer. Ruth
Martin says: “Older swimsuits were far more restrictive and conservative, but as
women in particular gained more control over the clothes they wore, so swimwear
became much more dynamic, colourful and daring.” Lastex and Contralex fabrics with
elastic woven into them meant that curvier figures could appear more slender.

“These rapidly shifting fashions and social norms encouraged designers and clothing
manufacturers to become much more daring and creative, resulting in some of the
stylish and beautiful outfits we see on the High Street today,” adds Ruth. Swimwear
has served throughout the century to establish and represent standards of beauty and
morality. In the 1930s and ’40s Hollywood began to take advantage of the allure of
the erotic bather. If Lara Turner, Jane Russell or Rita Hayworth were seen in the
private pools of Los Angeles, that was what every woman wanted to be doing.

Vogue in 1920 said: “The modern girl is triumphant. She can wear anything she wants
to wear, but if she is wise, she will be careful not let her freedom go to her head.
After all, the bathing suit tells a more honest story than any other form of dress.

” The 1930s saw another transformation in swimwear fashion. The tan became a status
symbol, championed by Coco Chanel, as was the desire for a fit physique. Costumes
became smaller, tighter and more revealing, so the body needed to look trimmer. Ruth
Martin says: “Older swimsuits were far more restrictive and conservative, but as
women in particular gained more control over the clothes they wore, so swimwear
became much more dynamic, colourful and daring.” Lastex and Contralex fabrics with
elastic woven into them meant that curvier figures could appear more slender.

“These rapidly shifting fashions and social norms encouraged designers and clothing
manufacturers to become much more daring and creative, resulting in some of the
stylish and beautiful outfits we see on the High Street today,” adds Ruth. Swimwear
has served throughout the century to establish and represent standards of beauty and
morality. In the 1930s and ’40s Hollywood began to take advantage of the allure of
the erotic bather. If Lara Turner, Jane Russell or Rita Hayworth were seen in the
private pools of Los Angeles, that was what every woman wanted to be doing.

Seventies men’s swimming shorts, from the Marks & Spencer Archive. During the Second
World War, tans were acquired while contributing to the war effort, digging potatoes
or harvesting crops. British Vogue said: “With the tension of wartime living and the
fatigue of wartime work make the most of every opportunity to bask in the sun.”
After 1945, as beaches reopened and seaside holidays became possible again, sea,
sun, a tan and the right look became the recipe for an ideal post-war summer.

Swimwear not only traces modesty and beauty trends but also advancements in
technology, sport and the fashionable look. The 1950s saw new fabrics and new
methods of processing cotton. Un-crushable cotton became available, treated so that
clothes would crease very little when folded and would drip dry when washed.

Swimwear also reflects the changing moods of society, most prominently seen in the
1960s. By the end of the decade, small bosoms were fashionable and all the
bolstering disappeared as models such as Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton were plastered
all over billboards, portraying a boyish figure and ironing board chest. Caroline
Brown says: “The general freedom of the 1960s in fashion and lifestyle meant that by
the 1970s and ’80s swimsuits had veered heavily towards the low end of the taste and
the skimpiest triangles to cover your modesty, as well as prints and colours and
fabrics which are unmistakable of their eras – for example, the macrame bikinis in
the ’70s and neon coloured synthetic sex bomb slinky swimsuits in the ’80s.” If you
want to see and maybe buy vintage and retro swimwear, head to Whitby for the annual
Great Seaside Vintage Fair next month. “It is the only vintage fair with a sea
view,” says Caroline Brown.

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