A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

July 2003

She Wore A Teeny Weenie Bikini...

...but not before 1916

by Dr. Tina Brewster Wray, Curator of Collections

  The bikini was first introduced in 1946 at a Paris fashion show. Designer Louis Renard named his new creation after the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific, and proudly claimed it was "so small that it revealed everything about the girl except her mother's maiden name." This certainly was a change from earlier styles.

Bathing suit, 1896.
Bathing suit, 1896. Nautical-themed decorations,
such as sailor collars and anchors were common in this period.
From Harper's Bazaar.

By the mid-1800's it was beginning to be acceptable for women to engage in public bathing. Railroads provided convenient transportation to the seashore, and people began to flock to public beaches. As a result, garments designed especially for these activities were developed. A woman's bathing costume of this period consisted of a high-necked, knee-length tunic with half-sleeves, baggy trousers extending to mid-calf, stockings, bathing shoes, and a cloth cap. Of course, even when bathing, no respectable woman would appear in public without a corset. Clearly, modesty was more important than considerations of comfort or mobility, since these outfits could weigh over twenty pounds when wet.

In the following decades, as women began to actually swim, the skirts and bloomers became shorter, but it was not until after World War I that there were major changes. These mirrored what was happening in women's fashion in general -- corsets were discarded, curves were out and the tubular silhouette was in, and clothing was lighter, looser and much more revealing. Women's bathing suits of the 1920s consisted of a hip-length tank top and attached fitted shorts. Wool was still the most popular material, but suits were now available in brighter colors, such as "jockey red" and "peacock blue". Stockings and bathing shoes completed the outfit.

Viola Scott posing in bathing costume at Redondo Beach, c. 1921.
Viola Scott posing in bathing costume at Redondo Beach, c. 1921.
WRVM #3795

In the 1930s and 1940s, women's swimsuits were even more revealing and form-fitting. This was the result of several factors -- curves once again became fashionable, and man-made fabrics allowed for a sleek garment that hugged the body. Designers responded to the increasing popularity of sunbathing with styles such as backless or 2-piece suits with bare midriff.


1937 Sears Roebuck catalog
The 1937 Sears Roebuck catalog featured form-fitting swimsuits
with low backs for sunbathing.

Today, women can chose from a wide variety of styles including: high-tech suits designed for speed; skimpy bikinis that might make even Mr. Renard blush; and skirted "tankinis", reminiscent of 1920s bathing suits. As Cole Porter tunefully put it, "Now, heaven knows, Anything Goes!"
Dr. Tina Brewster Wray