The story of swimwear and shopping tips

Summer, sun, beach, and the sea – I guess this sounds like a dream for almost everyone of us! But what can make these things even more beautiful? Exactly: A sunny day at the beach in lovely swimwear. So let’s explore the fascinating story of swimwear, and how this fashion genre changed over the years. Furthermore, I’m going to tell you where you can buy lovely (retro) swimwear at the end of the article.

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The Story of Swimwear in the 20th Century

RetroCat wearing a striped swimsuit and a big hat

In the late 19th and early 20th century, women usually wore a kind of dress-style swimwear that was not only cumbersome, but even dangerous. Those swim dresses got very heavy when they became wet, so some women had to be rescued from the water or even drowned. With swimming getting more popular amongst society, the demand for a more practical and safer swimwear for women grew, which led to rapid changes in the textile industry. This new, fascinating, and provocative fashion genre definitely was promising. So let’s have a look at the fascinating story of the swimwear of the 20th century.

The first real swimsuits that remind us of modern swimwear became popular in the late 1910s and early1920s. Those one-piece swimsuits often were made of wool or heavy cotton fabrics. Nevertheless, they were ways more comfortable than the old swim dresses, and could even be quite elastic and often looked very pretty.

The Swimwear of the 1920s: Comfortable Swimsuits

RetroCat wearing a white swimsuit at the sea
Due to the new, comfortable swimsuits, swimming became safer for women.

Those swimsuits in the 1920s definitely have similarities with modern swimwear, although they had a quite straight cut and covered the bottom. Nevertheless, those swimsuits didn’t came without protest. Especially in the UK, it was seen as a scandal if women showed arms and legs back then.

However, with beach holidays becoming more and more popular and a growing influence of the film industry, swimwear found its way into womens’ closets. The most popular designers of that time created sports suits and swimsuits. One of them was Coco Chanel, who experimented with comfortable jersey fabrics and designed a striped knitted sport suit.

Fun fact: As swimwear wasn’t subject to censorship in Hollywood, film industry often replaced underwear by swimwear. Lots of water scenes that showed enough skin to entice viewers into cinemas were the result. This, in turn, made swimwear even more popular.

New fabrics were launched as well. A combination of latex and viscose was very promising, as it was elastic and water-resistant. Back then, though, Europe definitely lag behind the US when it came to technical innovations.

The Swimwear of the 1930s: Chic and small

RetroCat wearing a striped swimsuit with a deep back neckline
Many women of the 1930s liked to show their back, and stripes were en vouge, too. The swimsuit in the picture is new, though.

The term “Bikini” has existed only since 1946. However, in the 1930s, the first two-piece swimsuits were invented. And those already looked a lot like a modern bikini. Although the panties had to be high enough to cover the belly button, those two-piece swimsuits already showed the rest of the upper belly. Other than that, swimsuits stayed fashionable, and sometimes had a quite deep back neckline. In the 1930s evening wear, a deep back neckline was absolutely en vouge, and the women back then already wanted to have an even browning.

Swimwear of the 1940s: Curvy and a  scandalous Innovation

RetroCat wearing a colourful retro swimsuit by Bettie Page
The swimwear ot the 1940s was very curvy and feminine

The swimwear of the 1940s was very feminine and figure flattering – just think of the amazing Pin-up Girls of the 1940s! Swimsuits had decorations like belts, neckholder, and integrated bras to show off a woman’s curves. However, due to wartime rationings further swimwear inventions came to a halt and decorations like ruffles and other frills almost disappeared from swimwear.

RetroCat wearing a vintage bikini from the 1950s
The bikini definitely caused some scandals in its first years.

The natural consequence of wartime rationing was a cheeky two-piece suit launched in 1946: The bikini. There are, by the way, two men who claim to be the inventor of the bikini. The French couturier Jacques Heim created a two-piece swimsuit called “Atome” and advertised it “the world’s smallest bathing suit“.

However, as size actually does matter, Louis Réard, a French engineer, created a two-piece swimsuit with an even smaller brief and promoted it as “smaller than the smallest bathing suit“. He called his bathing suit “Bikini”, after the Bikini Atoll in the South Sea where the United States performed nuclear tests. Nevertheless, the bikini couldn’t really establish itself amongst the general public in the 1940s.

The Swimwear of the 1950s: Stylish Swimsuits and the Bikini

RetroCat wearing a true vintage bikini from the 50s
In the 1950s, the bikini became more popular. In the photo, by the way, I’m wearing a true vintage bikini from the 1950s.

The silhouette of the 1950s enchants us even today. Lovely cuts and details that create the illusion of an hourglass silhouette look timeless and can still be worn. Even the swimwear of that time is somehow inspired by Dior’s New Look. Colourful prints were popular as well.

When Brigitte Bardot strolled around the Croisette in Cannes in the 1950s wearing a bikini, the cheeky two-piece suit finally got more popular.

The elegant, glamorous swimwear of the 1950s came to a hald in the revolutionary 1960s, though.

The Swimwear of the 1960s: Lots of Revolutions

RetroCat wearing a white swimsuit with a deep back neckline
Small bikinis, topless bathing suits, and monokinis: The 1960s were revolutionary – even when we are talking about swimwear.

In contrast to the glamorous swimwear of the 1950s, the swimwear of the 1960s was mainly sporty and modern. Durable and affordable fabrics like nylon found their way into swimwear fashion and replaced the lavishly decorated swimsuits from the previous decades.

In 1968, fashion designer Rudi Gernreich introduced a topless monokini to his quite shocked audience. At the Côte d’Azur, some women already sunbathed topless. Furthermore, fancy monokinis, and thrilling new designs found their way into swimwear fashion. The swimwear of the 1960s paved the way for our modern swimwear and still is wearable.

RetroCat wearing a modern swimsuit with a deep neckline

Swimwear nowadays still is influenced by the fashion of bygone eras. We do have better fabrics for the sea and pool now, though.


Where to buy beautiful Swimwear

RetroCat wearing a lovely swimsuit at the Croatian Adria coast

I personally love to wear retro and vintage (inspired) swimwear! Those pieces are often very flattering and definitely something special. Nevertheless, I also like modern swimwear. In the following, I’m going to show you some wonderful pieces and tell you where to buy them. You will find lovely retro swimwear at  TopVintage* or Amazon*, for example. And I buy my modern swimwear at Asos*, Ted Baker*, or Boden*. The best: Many lovely swimwear pieces are on sale, now!

Lovely retro Swimwear with Polka-Dots

RetroCat wearing a retro swimsuit with polka-dots

Polka-dots are a quite classy retro pattern and not only look good in the city, but also at the beach. So I really like my swimwear with those lovely dots.

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Fruity retro Swimwear for Beach Babes

RetroCat wearing a colourful retro swimsuit in the sea

Pineapples, lemons, and oranges – fruity prints are a wonderful choice in summer and look absolutely delicious – er beautiful – at the beach.

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Colourful Hours at the Beach

RetroCat wearing a colourful swimsuit by Bettie Page Swimwear

No matter if flowers, animal prints, or graphic patterns: Colourful swimwear always makes me happy and is definitely an eye-catcher.

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Stripes at the Sea

RetroCat wearing a striped swimsuit in Croatia during sunset

Stripes and deep necklines are a wonderful combination for swimsuits. The one in the photo, by the way, is available at Amazon* and a real bargain.

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Chic Swimsuits with deep Necklines

RetroCat wearing a glamorous white swimsuit with a deep neckline

Deep necklines can look quite glamorous when worn on a subtle and chic swimsuit – perfect for a visit at a trendy beach club.

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Lovely retro Bikinis

RetroCat wearing a true vintage bikini from the 1950s at the beach

No blogpost about swimwear without lovely bikinis! If you like the retro style, you can choose a bikini with a high-waist brief, but I personally also like modern bikinis. The bikini in the pictures, by the way, is a true vintage find from the 1950s. Therefore, I only wear it at the beach and never in the water.

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