From the Roman bathhouse to the bikini, via bathing suits and bloomers, swimwear has evolved over the centuries to reflect changing social attitudes and norms.  

What Did Romans Wear At The Baths?

Bathing was one of the most popular pastimes in the Ancient Roman world and large communal bathhouses would be found in Roman cities big and small. A typical Roman bath would have three main rooms.

After undressing, bathers would enter the tepidarium or warm room to allow their bodies to adjust before entering the caldarium or hot room for steam, before plunging into a pool of cold water in the frigidarium or cold room. Bathers would then return to the tepidarium to apply oils to their skin and scrape off any dirt using a metal instrument called a strigil.

The bathing ritual could take a considerable amount of time, so bathers would typically go with friends and associates. The bathhouse was known to serve as a location for doing business deals, courtship, and gambling. 

The bathhouse therefore served a primarily social function rather than purely being about hygiene and cleanliness. Larger bathhouses contained a courtyard or palaestra surrounded by a colonnade which served as an area for exercise, allowing bathers to work up a sweat before they entered the baths proper.

Some bathhouses had a swimming pool in the palaestra. Many bathhouses included additional facilities such as libraries, shops, stages for theatrical performances, underlining the social function they played in Roman settlements. 

It is not entirely clear what Ancient Romans would have worn to the baths. Most baths had an anteroom where patrons would change out of their daily attire into a pair of thick sandals called sculponea to protect them from the heated floors.

Patrons likely bathed naked, though they might have worn a thin loincloth called a subligaculum. These garments are usually associated with exercise and sport in the ancient world and there is no evidence that they were worn while bathing. All swimmers are depicted naked in classical art.

During the Roman Republic and up until the 1st century AD, men and women would bathe separately. In the larger baths there would be separate male and female sections, each with their own set of rooms.

In the smaller baths men and women would bathe at different times of day. After the 1st century AD, it appears that mixed bathing became commonplace, although not everyone was happy at this development and the Emperor Hadrian attempted in vain to ban the practice.

Medieval Swimwear

After the fall of the Roman Empire, communal bathing remained popular in Europe, either in rivers or in indoor bathhouses. By the 14th century, the health benefits of hot springs and mineral baths were appreciated across Europe in places such as Bath, Carlsbad, and Spa – the latter giving its name to the spa, which resembled a Roman bathhouse. 

By the 1400s, the Church began to take a stricter attitude to nudity and compelled bathers to wear a strip of cloth round the groin and waist. Depictions of men and women bathing and swimming in Medieval and Renaissance art show them wearing contemporary underwear.

Swimwear In The 17th Century

Swimming and bathing in the nude or in underwear was standard both in Europe and in the wider world until the late 1600s. It was around this time that most people – especially women – began to wear specific garments for bathing to preserve their modesty. The 17th century English traveller Celia Fiennes visited the popular spa towns of Bath and Harrogate and described the bathing costumes for women and men in 1687:

“The ladies go into the bath with garments made of a fine yellow canvas, which is stiff and made large with great sleeves like a parson’s gown; the water fills it up so that it is borne off that your shape is not seen, it does not cling close as other linen, which looks sadly in the poorer sort that go in their own linen. The Gentlemen have drawers and waistcoats of the same sort of canvas, this is the best linen, for the bath water will change any other yellow.”

Fiennes does not elaborate on whether the yellow tint is the natural colour of the water piped from the springs, or if it is caused by the bathers themselves. While there was no nationwide legal prohibition in England against bathing in the nude, local authorities would set their own rules for appropriate bathing attire. The type of clothing described by Fiennes was mandated by the dress code of the Bath Corporation in 1737:

“It is Ordered Established and Decreed by this Corporation that no Male person above the age of ten years shall at any time hereafter go into any Bath or Baths within this City by day or by night without a Pair of Drawers and a Waistcoat on their bodies.”

“No Female person shall at any time hereafter go into a Bath or Baths within this City by day or by night without a decent Shift on their bodies.”

By the 1700s, the great and the good began to go to seaside resorts attracted by the benefits of saltwater bathing. Bathers went to great lengths to preserve their modesty, with beaches segregated between men and women. They could rent or buy bathing costumes similar to those described by Celia Fiennes.

Although they covered most of the body, these early swimsuits were effectively considered underwear and therefore not to be seen in public. For this reason, an elaborate contraption known as the bathing machine was invented for aristocratic women in the first half of the 18th century.

Bathers would enter small huts made of wood or canvas mounted on four wheels. Once inside, they could change into their bathing costumes. The hems of women’s bathing dresses included lead weights to prevent them from floating up in the water. Their everyday clothes would be placed in a compartment overhead to ensure that they remained dry.

Once they had changed, the bathing machine was taken into the sea by a horse and driver, allowing the bather to enter the water safely for a quick dip, concealed from onlookers on the beach. While men could and did continue to swim in the nude, the more respectable gentlemen kept their underwear on.

What Were Bathing Machines?

Bathing machines and long dresses continued to be standard practice for women throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century. Although primarily seen in the United Kingdom and the British Empire, bathing machines were also used in parts of Europe and the United States.

The advent of rail travel during the Victorian era enabled greater numbers of people to visit seaside resorts. Already by the middle of the 19th century, social standards relaxed, some beaches were desegregated, and bathing machines came to be used as stationary changing rooms by the edge of the beach instead, giving rise to the beach hut.

As bathing costumes were no longer taboo in public, they became a fashion item, with more expensive items being decorated with embroidered patterns. Nevertheless, modesty remained a priority in terms of women’s beachwear. Inspired by Turkish dress, American women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer popularised the bloomer, a loose-fitting and comfortable alternative to the restrictive dresses of the time.

The loose-fitting nature of bloomers made them suitable swimwear for the time since they did not reveal the female form. Dark colours were more popular as they were less revealing than lighter ones. The desegregation of beaches led to the creation of specially-designed swimsuits for men. These knee-length garments with short sleeves could come in either one or two pieces.

The increasing popularity of swimming as a form of recreation and exercise prompted lighter and more comfortable swimming costumes for women with shorter skirts and sleeves.

Who Was Annette Kellerman?

One of the first women to wear a one-piece swimsuit was the Australian professional swimmer, Annette Kellerman, in the early 1900s. 

A champion swimmer and pioneer of synchronised swimming, she went on to become a vaudeville star and actress and was the first women to appear nude in a Hollywood movie. Nicknamed the Underwater Ballerina, she claimed she was once arrested was arrested on a Boston beach for wearing a one-piece swimsuit with her arms and legs uncovered but she appears to have invented the story. 

In any event her swimming costumes were so popular she started her own swimwear brand. The swimsuits were similar to  what male swimmers wore at the time, with fabric covering the arms and legs and known as ‘the Annette Kellerman.’ 

In the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, women’s swimming was introduced for the first time, with participants wearing swimsuits similar to Kellerman’s pioneering design.

The shifting of social attitudes and the increased popularity of recreational and competitive swimming meant that tight fitting swimsuits would not go away. In 1913 Carl Jantzen, the co-founder of a small knitting company in Portland, Oregon, designed a rowing suit made of wool and using a rubber-like material that maintained its shape wet or dry.

This ‘rib stitch’ innovation proved popular among swimmers, prompting the company to market them as ‘bathing suits.’ These ‘Jantzens’ created a national sensation across the United States, while the renamed Jantzen Knitting Company’s brand was instantly recognisable from their Red Diving Girl range of swimsuits, a name first coined by Jantzen in 1921. 

Initially Jantzen’s swimsuits were primarily worn by competitive swimmers, but saw wider adoption in the 1920s-30s as form and function continued to take precedence over modesty. The development of new materials such as latex and nylon ensured an ever-tighter fit. 

When Was The Bikini Invented?

As women ditched their corsets for bras, swimsuit designers began to take off even more material, making two piece suits with plunging necklines and short sleeves. This phenomenon accelerated in World War Two with the demand of material for the war effort.

In 1942 the US War Production Board mandated a 10% reduction in the amount of fabric used for women’s beachwear, prompting manufacturers to make two piece suits with bare midriffs.

The fabric shortage continued after the war, and in 1946 the Frenchman Louis Reard invented the bikini, inspired by the women he saw rolling up the edges of their swimsuits in a beach in St Tropez for a better tan. Reard announced his invention on 5 July 1946 in Paris, a few days after the first test of an American nuclear device at Bikini Atoll, thus naming it the bikini on account of the explosive effect the new design.

The scandalous nature of Reard’s new design was because it was the first two piece swimsuit to reveal a woman’s navel. Since no models were willing to appear in it, Reard was forced to hire a nude dancer to model his creation. 

The bikini was by no means an overnight success, and was only adopted by upper-class European women. It was denounced by the Pope and duly banned in Catholic majority countries including Belgium, Italy, and Spain.

Most women continued to favour the standard two-piece swimsuit, with most of American society denouncing the bikini as an example of French decadence. American swimsuit mogul Fred Cole told Time in 1950 that “French girls have short legs… Swimsuits have to be hiked up at the sides to make their legs look longer.” 

This did not prevent actresses such as Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe, and Raquel Welch from appearing in bikinis to enhance their sex appeal. Bardot in particular made a significant contribution to the popularity of the bikini in Europe during the 1950s, wearing a bikini to the Cannes Film Festival in 1953, but it was only during the sexual revolution of the 1960s that American women embraced the bikini. 

Swimwear In The 21st Century

While the bikini remains an iconic piece of swimwear, as with lingerie, swimsuits have evolved to fit many shapes and sizes, giving women far more choice. As environmental concerns rise up the social and political agenda, more brands have introduced eco-friendly swimwear ranges.

Indeed, Brigitte Bardot continues to be at the forefront of innovations in swimwear, having launched her own range of eco-friendly swimwear and lingerie in 2015. 

April 24, 2024
Tags: Blog