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From Bloomers to Bikinis: The Changing Styles of Women's Swimwear

Updated: Jan 4

As summer approaches, it's time to dig out those swimsuits and hit the beach or pool. Have you ever wondered how women's swimwear has evolved over time? From Victorian modesty to modern-day chic, swimwear has challenged the social norm and reflected the change in culture from decade to decade. This journey of swimwear fashion is complete with style and controversies that reflect the shifting attitudes toward practicality, sexuality, and body image over the past century.

Women's beach fashion has a rich and fascinating history, with each decade bringing its own unique style and trends. From the modest bathing costumes of the late 1800s to the daring bikinis of today, beach fashion has evolved to reflect the changing attitudes toward femininity, sexuality, and self-expression. In this article, we will explore the history of women's beach fashion decade by decade.

The 1880s and 1890's

In the 1880s, women's beach fashion was heavily influenced by Victorian modesty. Swimsuits consisted of long, heavy woolen dresses with bloomers and stockings underneath, as well as bathing shoes and caps. The idea was to cover up as much skin as possible, so as not to offend Victorian sensibilities.

In the 1890s, women's beach fashion began to shift towards more practical designs, with shorter skirts and shorter sleeves. Swimsuits were still made of wool, but they were lighter and less cumbersome than the previous decade's styles. Women's swimming became more socially acceptable, and swimming competitions for women began to emerge. In 1896, the first modern Olympic Games included women's swimming events.

The 1900s

In the early 1900s, swimsuits for women were long dresses made of wool or flannel that covered the body from head to toe. They were designed for practicality and modesty, rather than fashion. Famous American swimmer Annette Kellerman challenged this idea by wearing a more form-fitting swimsuit that revealed her arms and legs, which was considered scandalous at the time. In 1907 she was arrested for indecency. Her fame at the time started the conversation of “why not” show a little skin.


At the start of the decade, women's swimsuits were still relatively conservative, covering the entire body except for the arms and lower legs. These swimsuits were typically made of wool and often featured a skirt or dress-like overlay. Women also wore stockings and bathing shoes, which covered the feet and ankles. As the decade progressed, swimsuits became slightly more revealing, with shorter skirts, lower necklines, and shorter or non-existent sleeves. The material also began to shift from wool to more lightweight fabrics, such as cotton and jersey.

By the end of the decade, women's swimsuits had undergone a significant transformation. One-piece swimsuits had become more popular, with some styles featuring cutouts and bare midriffs. Swimsuits were also made of more modern materials, such as rayon and silk. Overall, the trend during this period was toward less coverage and more comfort, with swimsuits becoming more practical and functional for swimming and other water activities.


In the 1920s, women's beach fashion underwent a dramatic transformation, reflecting the cultural changes of the time. The 1920s brought with it a new sense of freedom and liberation, and this was reflected in beach fashion. It was also a decade when the tanning trend became popular. Swimsuits became shorter and more revealing, with low-cut backs and high-cut legs. The style was inspired by the flapper fashion of the era, which emphasized a more carefree and liberated attitude toward life.

Famous actresses such as Joan Crawford, and Louise Brooks were known for their stylish beach attire. Actresses Clara Bow is known for their flapper style and daring beachwear. These trends were not without controversy, in 1922, if you wore a bathing suit that was too short, you could receive a warrant from the police. They even had “bathing suit” patrol men who would measure to see if a bathing suit was of proper length standards. Bathing suits back then could not be more than 6 inches above the knees.


In the 1930s, women's beach fashion became more streamlined and sportier, with swimsuits designed for swimming and diving. Materials also aided this fashion trend with the introduction of new synthetic fabrics such as rayon and nylon. Swimsuits featured low-cut legs and backs and were made of materials such as rayon and nylon. Actress and pin-up model Betty Grable was known for her hourglass figure and sultry beach style. . The Hollywood glamour of the 1930s also had an impact on beach fashion, with famous actresses such as Marlene Dietrich and Dorothy Lamour sporting elegant beachwear.


In the 1940s, World War II had a significant impact on women's beach fashion, as swimsuit materials became scarce and women's roles in society changed. Swimsuits were often made of cotton and were more modest than in previous decades. Esther Williams, a swimmer, and actress, had a significant impact on women's swimsuits by popularizing the idea of swimwear as fashion. Williams' swimsuits featured bold colors, intricate designs, and flattering cuts that highlighted the female figure. She also introduced new styles, such as the one-piece swimsuit with a low-cut back, which became known as the "Esther Williams" swimsuit.

The popular "pin-up" girl style of the era featured high-waisted bottoms and halter tops, with famous pin-up models such as Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth setting the trend. In the late 1940’ came the introduction of the two-piece swimsuit in the 1940s marked another significant shift in women's beach fashion. The bikini was introduced in 1946 by designer Louis Réard. The bikini was initially met with shock and resistance from the public, and it was banned in many countries and public beaches, but it quickly gained popularity and became a staple of beach fashion.


In the 1950s, women's beach fashion began to reflect the post-war optimism and prosperity of the era. Women's swimwear in the 1950s was greatly influenced by the cultural and social norms of the time. A new emphasis on femininity and glamour was reflected in beach fashion. Swimsuits featured vibrant colors and patterns and were often made of new fabrics such as Lycra.

The bikini became mainstream in the 1950s when famous actresses such as Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot wore the daring style. These sex symbols helped popularize the bikini in the 1950s with their sultry beach style. Women's swimwear in the 1950s was greatly influenced by the cultural and social norms of the time. It was a time when women's fashion was becoming more feminine, and swimwear was no exception. The swimsuits of the 1950s were typically more modest compared to the revealing swimsuits of today.

The controversy surrounding women's swimwear in the 1950s was centered around modesty and morality. Many people felt that women's swimwear should cover up as much of the body as possible, and there were even laws in some places that regulated the amount of skin that could be exposed in public. The introduction of the bikini was seen as scandalous by some, and it was banned in several countries and conservative communities.

Despite the controversy, women's swimwear in the 1950s was still seen as a fashion statement. Movie stars like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor popularized the one-piece swimsuit and helped to make it a staple of women's beachwear. Overall, the 1950s represented a time of transition in women's swimwear, as the more conservative styles of the past began to give way to new, more fashionable styles.


The 1960s saw a return to the more free-spirited style of the 1920s and reflected the social and cultural shifts of 60’s. It was a decade marked by the rise of the feminist movement, a shift towards youth culture, and the sexual revolution, and these influences were reflected in women's swimwear styles. Style-wise, the 1960s saw a move towards more daring and revealing swimwear styles.

One-piece swimsuits became more form-fitting, featuring higher leg cuts and lower necklines. The bikini remained a popular choice, with styles featuring more modest coverage, such as the "monokini" which was a one-piece swimsuit with cutouts at the sides or front. The use of vibrant colors, bold prints, and geometric patterns also became more popular in swimwear during this time.

Model and actress Twiggy was known for her androgynous style and daring beachwear. Sears was a popular place to buy swimsuits as they kept in trend with the latest fashions and introduced them into the American home. Who can forget Rachael Welsh's unforgettable animal-hide bikini in 1966's "One Million Years B.C." Rachael was a major swimwear influencer with her movie roles and general public influence as a beauty of the century.

The controversy surrounding women's swimwear in the 1960s centered around the issue of modesty and the changing attitudes towards sex and sexuality. Some swimwear styles were seen as scandalous by some, and there were still laws in place that regulated the amount of skin that could be exposed in public. However, the fashion industry and the media helped to push the boundaries of acceptable swimwear, and by the end of the decade, more daring styles were becoming more mainstream.

Overall, the 1960s represented a time of change and experimentation in women's swimwear. The styles of the decade reflected the shifting cultural attitudes towards sex and sexuality, and the more daring and revealing swimwear styles were a symbol of women's liberation and empowerment.


In the 1970s, women's beach fashion took on a more bohemian and relaxed vibe, with flowing maxi dresses and crochet bikinis. The popularity of the disco era also influenced beach fashion, with metallic swimsuits and platform sandals becoming popular. In the 1970s, one-piece swimsuits remained popular, with an emphasis on comfort and practicality. This was reflected in the use of stretchy fabrics like spandex and the incorporation of features such as built-in bras and high-cut legs. The bikini also remained a popular choice, with styles featuring high-cut legs, low-cut bottoms, and strapless tops.

Rachael Welch continued her 1960's classic swimwear trends into the '70s styling a cowboy hat and a patriotic swimsuit in 1970's "Myra Breckinridge." Farrah Fawcett was one of the most influential fashion icons of the 1970s. Her iconic red swimsuit poster, which featured her in a one-piece swimsuit with a high-cut leg, became a cultural phenomenon and helped to popularize the high-cut leg style. Ask any teen boy of the late 70’s – Early 80’s and they most likely had that poster on their wall. Bo Derek also made the swimsuit iconic in her 1979 role in the film "10" which catapulted her to fame and her white swimsuit and beaded cornrows hairstyle became instantly recognizable. Christy Brinkly, Cheryl Tiegs, and many other "Super Models" helped drive swimwear fashion.


The 1980s saw a resurgence of high-cut swimsuits and bold neon colors. Swimsuits often featured graphic designs or logos, and were made of stretchy, synthetic fabrics such as spandex. This was influenced by the rise of fitness and aerobics trends, as well as the increased participation of women in sports. The bikini also evolved to feature high-waisted bottoms and more modest coverage, reflecting changing attitudes towards body standards and fashion trends. One-piece swimsuits featured cut-out designs and playful patterns, while the bikini continued to evolve to include more varied styles, such as the "bandeau" bikini top and "triangle" bikini bottom.

Actress and models Christie Brinkley, Ellah Mcpherson, and Kathy Ireland were known for their athletic beach style and frequent appearances in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issues. In 1986, designer Norma Kamali caused a stir with her "Sling" swimsuit, which featured a single strap across the chest and exposed one breast. One of the most iconic female stars of the 1980s was Princess Diana, who was often photographed wearing sporty and practical swimwear while on vacation. Her swimsuit styles, which often featured high-waisted bottoms and tank-style tops, helped to popularize the trend of sporty and functional swimwear.


In the 1990s, one-piece swimsuits continued to be popular, with many featuring bold patterns and cut-out designs. It was a decade of experimentation and innovation in swimwear fashion, with a focus on bold prints, high-cut bottoms, and sporty designs.

Here are some of the cool features of swimsuits in the 1990s:

  1. High-cut bottoms - Swimsuits in the 1990s featured high-cut bottoms that elongated the legs and provided a flattering, streamlined silhouette.

  2. Bold prints - Swimsuits in the 1990s often featured bold, vibrant prints such as neon colors, floral patterns, and animal prints.

  3. Sporty styles - Athletic-inspired swimsuits were popular in the 1990s, with styles featuring racerbacks, zippered fronts, and sleek, form-fitting designs.

  4. Minimalist designs - The 1990s saw a shift towards minimalist, understated designs, with swimsuits featuring clean lines and simple shapes.

  5. Baywatch-style swimsuits - The popular TV show Baywatch, which ran from 1989 to 2001, popularized the high-cut red one-piece swimsuit, which became a symbol of 1990s swimwear fashion.

The bikini also evolved to include new styles, such as the "halter" top and "string" bottom. Notable female stars during this time include supermodels like Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell, who were often photographed wearing stylish and glamorous swimsuits. Swimsuits were often made of bright colors or patterns and were designed to be mix-and-matched. Model and actress Pamela Anderson is known for her iconic red one-piece swimsuit on the television show "Baywatch". In 1992, designer Tom Ford caused controversy with his "pubic hair" Gucci swimsuit Commercial, which featured a cutout in the pubic area.


The 2000s saw the rise of the bikini as the dominant swimsuit style, with a focus on skimpy cuts and revealing designs. The bikini also continued to evolve, with new styles such as the "triangular" top and "hipster" bottom. Female stars such as Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, and Halle Berry helped to popularize certain swimsuit trends through their music videos and red-carpet appearances. Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen was also known for her beach style, often sporting tiny bikinis on the covers of magazines. In 2006, designer Louis Réard celebrated the 60th anniversary of the bikini by creating a $1.5 million diamond-encrusted swimsuit.

In terms of scandals, one notable controversy during this time involved the swimwear brand "Victoria's Secret." In 2003, the company was criticized for its use of thin models in its swimsuit catalogs, leading to accusations of promoting unrealistic body standards. The controversy led to a public debate about body image and the fashion industry's responsibility to promote more diverse and inclusive representation.

Another swimsuit controversy during this time involved the swimwear brand Speedo. In 2009, the company was criticized for its high-tech swimsuits, which were believed to provide an unfair advantage to swimmers in competition. The controversy led to new regulations on swimwear designs in competitive swimming which were implemented over the next year.


In the 2010s, swimsuits continued to become smaller and more revealing, with a trend towards high-waisted bikini bottoms, the “Wrap Top” and cut-out designs. Women's swimsuits continued to evolve with a focus on body positivity, inclusivity, and sustainability. Sustainability also became a growing concern in the fashion industry, including swimwear. Many swimwear brands began to use recycled materials and eco-friendly production processes to reduce their environmental impact.

In terms of styles, the bikini remained popular, with new styles such as the "boy short" and "bandage" bikini emerging. One-piece swimsuits also made a comeback during this time, with retro-inspired designs featuring high-cut legs and plunging necklines. It was also a decade that championed body positivity. Ashley Grahm led the way showing that plus-size women were beautiful inside and out.

Notable female stars during this time include Beyoncé, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry, who often sported bold and colorful swimsuits in their music videos and on the red carpet. Social media influencers such as Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner popularized the "naked" swimsuit trend, which featured sheer or mesh fabrics that left little to the imagination.

In 2016, the "burkini" became a controversial topic when it was banned on some French beaches due to its association with Islam.

The burkini covers the whole body except for the face, hands, and feet, and is often worn by Muslim women who wish to comply with modesty requirements while enjoying water activities. Some beaches banned the full-body swimsuit worn by some Muslim women. That same year the French Council of State ruled that the burkini ban was a "serious and manifestly illegal violation of fundamental rights," and the ban was eventually lifted in several municipalities. The issue gained international attention and brought to light the issue of individual rights and discrimination against Muslim women.


In the present day, swimsuits continue to evolve and reflect the changing attitudes toward femininity, body positivity, and sustainability. The swimwear industry has also undergone significant technological advancements, with the use of innovative fabrics and designs that offer better comfort and support. Swimsuits made from recycled materials and designed for a range of body types have become increasingly popular. Brands such as Chromat and Andrea Iyamah are known for their inclusive and diverse designs.

Style-wise, the 2020s have seen a wide range of swimwear styles, from traditional one-pieces and bikinis to new styles like high-waisted bottoms, cut-out designs, and athletic-inspired swimsuits. One trend that has emerged in recent years is the resurgence of the "retro" look, with styles inspired by the 1980s and 1990s making a comeback.

In 2021, model and actress Emily Ratajkowski caused a stir when she launched her swimwear brand, Inamorata, which featured tiny bikinis and thong bottoms. There is another ongoing debate about the use of airbrushing and retouching in swimwear advertising, with many arguing that it contributes to unrealistic beauty standards. There are also concerns about the environmental impact of swimwear production, with many brands focusing on using sustainable materials and production processes.

Overall, women's swimwear in the 2020s represents a fusion of different styles and influences, with a focus on inclusivity, sustainability, and innovation. While controversies and debates continue to arise, the industry is evolving and adapting to the changing cultural and social landscape. Today, women have more options than ever when it comes to choosing the perfect swimsuit, with styles and designs that cater to a wide range of preferences and body types. Some popular Womans Swimsuit brands include Cupshe, Victoria's Secret Swim, Seafolly, Miraclesuit, J.Crew, Calvin Klein, Lululemon, Roxy, Nike Swim, and Tommy Bahama.

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