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What Did the Iconic Figures of the 20th Century Look Like in Swimwear?

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Let’s see what the iconic figures of the 20th century looked like in swimwear!

Vera Reynolds in 1924, wearing a considerably moderate one-piece; Elizabeth Taylor on the beach in 1959; and the French dancer, Michelin Bernardini,  who became famous for being the first one to advertise the bikini in 1946 designed by Louis Réard.

Vera Reynolds in 1924, wearing a considerably moderate one-piece; Elizabeth Taylor on the beach in 1959; and the French dancer, Michelin Bernardini, who became famous for being the first one to advertise the bikini in 1946 designed by Louis Réard.

Our first record of the bikini: its Roman again

There is no surprise that our swimwear shares its origin with our culture, and that this fashion also has its roots in the Grecian-Roman Empire.

Our first record of the bikini is displayed in Villa Romana del Casale, in Sicily, in the form of mosaic on the floor.

Our first record of the bikini is displayed in Villa Romana del Casale, in Sicily, in the form of mosaic on the floor.

Our first record of the bikini is displayed in Villa Romana del Casale, in Sicily, in the form of mosaic on the floor.

As you can see, the women depicted use the bikini not for swimming or sunbathing but for exercising. It seems that the mosaic was depicting the female Olympic games. So back in those times the two-piece-garment had a different function from that of our days: it was a comfortable sportswear, that would not get caught on anything and was meant to grant a fresh feeling during the heavy exercise.

Horti Farnesiani secret gardens belonging to the powerful Farnese family, the cave-like nymphaeu.

Horti Farnesiani secret gardens belonging to the powerful Farnese family, the cave-like nymphaeu.

Of course, quite of few centuries have passed between the bikinis of Roman times and of today, and in those times both the amount of textile and the moral limits have oscillated regarding the swimwear.

Bathers and swimwear fashion at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries

Lake Balaton, local history, bathing, fashion.

Lake Balaton, local history, bathing, fashion.

In the 19th century, it was not yet made of the shiny, clingy material like nowadays, but rather the shirt-like clothes were made of wool and flannel and they used to function more as bathrobes.

Women’s swimsuits underwent a significant evolution in the 20th century and - a particular joy for men - this happened at the expense of the amount of textile, and in favour of showcasing female beauty. However, the first pioneers had a difficult time trying to popularize the thin outfit in the face of social expectations and the reproving opinion of religious leaders.

In order to make this suggestive “garment” accepted and sought after, first the current divas and beauty icons had to wear it and show it proudly for the whole world.

Let’s see what the iconic figures of the 20th century looked like in swimwear!

Pioneer of the female swimsuits

Annette Kellermann Australian swimmer in the early 1900s, wearing the bathing suit she had designed herself.

Annette Kellermann Australian swimmer in the early 1900s, wearing the bathing suit she had designed herself.

Annette Kellermann was born in Australia in 1887, and in a great part we owe it to her that the female swimsuit as we know it today became widespread. As a professional swimmer she realized early on, that the accepted female swimwear of her time—the dress with sailor collars and short sleeves, plus the slacks—were very uncomfortable and restricted free movement in the water.

Compared to that, her “invention”, the one-piece, tight bathing suit, was a huge step forward. After a rocky start filled with social rejection and outrage, the new idea finally succeeded: Miss Kellermann’s bathing suits came into fashion and she started her successful own business to advertise them.

At the age of 6 her legs were so weak that she had to wear metal connecting devices. Her parents signed her up for a swimming course, so that to strengthen her leg muscles with sport, which resulted in her legs working perfectly by the age of 13 and led to winning her first swimming competition by 15.

Miss Kellermann - who was among the first women attempting to swim across the English Channel, when she was only 19 - later shorted the design. With her innovations she first had to break through the resistance on the part of society: in 1907 she was even arrested on the beach of Massachusetts for “indecency”, that is, she dared to swim in a close-fitted, one-piece bathing suits.

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The first designer who separated the swimsuit into two different pieces

Carl Jantzen was the first designer who separated the swimsuit into two different pieces for the sake of functionality. The bottom piece was a pair shorts, while the top piece was a T-shirt.

In the 20s and 30s the primary function was no longer simply the bathing experience, but the importance of sunbathing as well. This led to increasingly extravagant and outrageous garments.

New types of textile were experimented with, first rayon was used for its tightness, but it became an unpleasant wear as soon as it touched water, so silk and other clingy materials were utilized to reach the desired effect.

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Dolores Del Rio was the first actress to who was willing to wear a two-piece swimsuit on the screen.

The two world wars gave even more reason to, by blaming the crisis, reduce the amount and quality of material used for bathing suits, a development celebrated by the male society. The Catholic church obviously banned the garment, as it was irreconcilable with the commandments, the creed and the religious sentiment. This sparked arguments and riots everywhere in Europe, and when it comes to sparks and explosions, we must mention, that this was indeed the goal.

FLYING DOWN TO RIO, 1933

Atome, Bikini Atoll, the “smallest” and “smaller than the smallest”

The two world wars gave even more reason to, by blaming the crisis, reduce the amount and quality of material used for bathing suits, a development celebrated by the male society. The Catholic church obviously banned the garment, as it was irreconcilable with the commandments, the creed and the religious sentiment. This sparked arguments and riots everywhere in Europe, and when it comes to sparks and explosions, we must mention, that this was indeed the goal.

In 1946, in the optimistic era following the war, French designer Jacques Heim dreamt up the two-piece swimwear he called “the smallest bathing suit in the world” and named it Atome. Taking the idea a little further, in the same year Louis Réard created the Bikini, “smaller than the smallest bathing suit in the world”, and following the idea of the atom, he named it after the Bikini Atoll, the coral reef in the Pacific Ocean that became known for the nuclear bombs blown up there.

Evolution of the Bikini

Many American movie stars put on the bikini after the war, including Esther Williams, known for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”; Rita Hayworth, who starred in the movie “Gilda” directed by Károly Vidor; and Lana Turner, who may be familiar from “The Three Musketeers” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. These ladies wore the swimwear as fashion icons, spreading it across the US and Europe.

Naturally the big fashion companies could not stay out of distribution either, Dior, for example, was at the forefront of promoting swimwear accessories, therefore hats, sunglasses and gigantic earrings also became more and more popular. The Vogue formulated the following motto regarding the swimwear: “State of dress, not undress.”

There was only one problem concerning Réard’s bikini. Being ahead of its time, it led to a real turmoil, yet the citizens still opted for the contemporary, “conservative” outfit, the two-piece bathing suit that still covered a lot more than the bikini. Only well-off, modern European women of the world, embracing the new ideology, wore Réard’s bikini. It was also a deterrent, that many countries, such as Spain, Belgium, some states in the USA, Portugal, Italy and Australia, banned wearing bikinis and introduced serious sanctions if someone was caught at the beach in a bikini. Nevertheless, in order to induce tourism, in Spain the ban was withdrawn by the end of the 50s, and a little later wearing monokinis appeared as well.

Lana Turner, who may be familiar from “The Postman Always Rings Twice”.

Many American movie stars put on the bikini after the war, including Esther Williams, known for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”; Rita Hayworth, who starred in the movie “Gilda” directed by Károly Vidor; and Lana Turner, who may be familiar from “The Three Musketeers” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. These ladies wore the swimwear as fashion icons, spreading it across the US and Europe.

Naturally the big fashion companies could not stay out of distribution either, Dior, for example, was at the forefront of promoting swimwear accessories, therefore hats, sunglasses and gigantic earrings also became more and more popular. The Vogue formulated the following motto regarding the swimwear: “State of dress, not undress.”

There was only one problem concerning Réard’s bikini. Being ahead of its time, it led to a real turmoil, yet the citizens still opted for the contemporary, “conservative” outfit, the two-piece bathing suit that still covered a lot more than the bikini. Only well-off, modern European women of the world, embracing the new ideology, wore Réard’s bikini. It was also a deterrent, that many countries, such as Spain, Belgium, some states in the USA, Portugal, Italy and Australia, banned wearing bikinis and introduced serious sanctions if someone was caught at the beach in a bikini. Nevertheless, in order to induce tourism, in Spain the ban was withdrawn by the end of the 50s, and a little later wearing monokinis appeared as well.

Miss World erupted a huge argument, as Kiki Håkansson was crowned wearing a bikini

The crowning of the first Miss World erupted a huge argument, as Kiki Håkansson was crowned wearing a bikini, which outraged the other countries, especially the Catholic ones, and the current pope, Pope Pius XII declared the existence of the swimsuit to be a sin. After all this, bikinis were banned at beauty contest, including the Miss World.

Our next stop is the Cannes Film Festival. It was 1953 when the almost forgotten argument resurfaced again. Brigitte Bardot’s outfit created a new market for the bikini in the USA, and her photos published in The Guardian spread like wildfire across the globe, not to mention that she started the fashion of bikini photoshoots, which had been prior to that almost identical to taking nudes.

Bridget Bardot in 1955, Cannes

The French Bridget Bardot was active as an actress between 1952-1973. She was the embodiment of attractive erotica, standing in front of the cameras with natural ease and charm even in a bathing suit.

50s Hollywood actresses were risqué as well

Similarly to her, the trying to prove their popularity with this new trend. Marilyn Monroe probably needs no introduction, and her fame was also heightened by the courageous decision, just like Betty Grable’s.

A postcard depicting Marilyn Monroe - probably needs no introduction - from the 1940s.

A postcard depicting Marilyn Monroe - probably needs no introduction - from the 1940s.

A postcard depicting Marilyn Monroe from the 1940s, when she was working as a model and not yet a movie star. She was one of the first women who undertook standing in front of the cameras in a garment that showed both their belly and bellybutton.

Marilyn Monroe in 1951, in the early years of her movie career, posing for the cameras in a ruffled, polka dotted bikini. Monroe and the movie world around her formed her “enchanting, silly blond” image on purpose. Art historian Gail Levin believes her to be the most photographed person of the 20th century.

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ICONIC MOMENTS OF MARILYN MONROE IN BIKINI AND SWIMSUIT 1940S-1960S

Two famous actresses played important roles in making the bikini legal in Europe: Sophia Loren and Anita Ekberg from “War and Peace”.

Anita Ekberg: Swedish-Italian actress, model, and sex symbol.

Anita Ekberg: Swedish-Italian actress, model, and sex symbol.

The Evolution of the Swimsuit

Comments

JC Scull from Gainesville, Florida on February 01, 2020:

Excellent article!!

Liz Westwood from UK on December 06, 2019:

This is an interesting subject within the fashion industry. You have researched it well and produced a very well-illustrated article.