Our story begins in the 4th century when the Villa Roma de Casale in Sicily was decorated with the first known representation of women wearing bathing suits. As the Roman mosaic-makers would have it, those early Sicilian women were portrayed exercising in what appears to be bikini-like suits, bandeau top and all.
Greek Baths.—Bathing was a practice familiar to the Greeks of both sexes from the earliest times, both in fresh water and salt. Thus, Nausicaa, daughter of Alcinous, king of Phaeacia, goes out with her attendants to wash her clothes; and after the task is done she bathes herself in the river ( Od.vi. 58 Od., 65). Odysseus, who is conducted to the same spot, strips and takes a bath, while Nausicaa and her servants stand aside. Warm springs were also resorted to for the purpose of bathing. The Ἡράκλεια λουτρά shown by Hephaestus or Athena to Heracles are celebrated by the poets. Pindar speaks of the hot baths of the nymphs, and Homer ( Il.xxii. 149) celebrates one of the streams of the Scamander for its warm temperature. Bathing in rivers or the sea (ψυχρολουτεῖν) was always common for the young. Not to know how to read and to swim were proverbial marks of the ignoramus. A plunge in the Eurotas always sufficed for the Lacedaemonians (Schol. on Thuc.ii. 36). There appears to have been a swimming-bath (κολυμβήθρα) at Athens in the time of Plato ( Rep.453D).
The artificial warm bath was taken in a vessel called ἀσάμινθος by Homer, and ἔμβασις by Athenaeus. It was no doubt of wood or marble, as the epithet εὔξεστος is applied to it ( Od.iv. 48), and in the case of Menelaus's Egyptian presents ( Od.iv. 128) it was of silver. It would appear from the description of the bath administered to Odysseus in the palace of Circe, that this vessel did not contain water itself, but was only used for the bather to sit in while the warm water was poured over him, which was heated in a large caldron or tripod, under which the fire was placed, and when sufficiently warmed was taken out in other vessels and poured over the head and shoulders of the person who sat in the ἀσάμινθος. Where cleanliness merely was the object sought, cold bathing was adopted, which was considered as most bracing to the nerves; but after violent bodily exertion or fatigue warm water was made use of, in order to refresh the body and relax the over-tension of the muscles. Hesiod ( Op.754) protests against men elaborately cleaning (φαιδρύνεσθαι) their bodies with effeminate baths Op., i. e. those of high temperature, which shows that this luxury had begun in his day; and in Homer's time constant indulgence in the warm bath was considered as a mark of luxury and effeminacy ( Od.viii. 249). The use of the warm bath was preceded by bathing in cold water ( Il.x. 576). The later custom of plunging into cold water after the warm bath mentioned by Aristides (vol. i. Orat.2, Sacr. Serm. p. 515), who wrote in the second century of our era, was no doubt borrowed from the Romans.
Greek and Roman sculpture (Room 23)1st century BC – 2nd century AD
Although sea bathing was fashionable in the 18th century, it was considered proper to keep the skin white and untouched by the sun. This 1797 Gallery of Fashion print shows two ladies protected by face-shading bonnets, shawls and gloves as they approach a group of bathing machines, a sort of cabana on wheels. Ladies were known to sew weights into the hem of their smock-like bathing gowns to prevent the garment from floating up and showing their legs. Modesty ruled over fashion.
Bathing in the ocean became a popular and fashionable activity in the 18th century when the introduction of railroads made travel much easier and faster. People flocked to the beaches in summer, seeking sun and rejuvenation. Until the 1800’s most swimming was done in the nude or in one’s under clothes until laws were passed dictating appropriate swimwear. The swimsuits invented during this period hid the body, making swimming (especially for women) restrictive and difficult.
At ocean resorts where the water was very shallow near the beach, people undressed in little houses on wheels, which were drawn out into deep water by horses and hauled back to the shore when the bath was finished. At the larger resorts hundreds of these carts were seen in the water at a time. The broad wheels hardly made an impression on the firm, white sand of the beach.
The bathing machine allowed a modest Victorian woman to spend the day at the beach in complete privacy. After the horse would haul the cabana into the ocean, the 19th century woman would change from her layers of petticoats and dress into another layer of swimwear. Later a hood was added to the contraption to allow the female in a soaking wet flannel dress to emerge from the water unseen.
This group of young ladies above is enjoying a sunbath, dressed in the latest 1890s swimwear. Women typically dressed in black, knee-length, puffed-sleeve wool dresses, often featuring a sailor collar, and worn over bloomers or drawers trimmed with ribbons and bows. The bathing costume was typically accessorized with long black stockings, lace-up bathing slippers, and fancy caps. Note the dotted stockings and wired sun hat worn by the young swimmer to the front of the photograph.
By the end of the 19th century people were flocking to the oceanside beaches for popular seaside activities such as swimming, surf bathing, and diving. The clumsy Victorian-style bathing costumes were becoming burdensome. A need for a new costume that retained modesty but was free enough to allow the young lady to eng
Old photos of Coney Island in the early 1900s tend to give the impression of it as a wholesome, family-friendly kind of place, sideshow freaks notwithstanding.
But Coney Island was one of the few places middle class New Yorkers could go to feel sexually free and loose—by the standards of the time, that is.
Compared to what people generally wore in the summer, those bathing-suit-and-bloomers combos were pretty revealing.
Single men and women met up and flirted on the boardwalk and beach, breaking free from rigid Victorian-era dating codes.
And the rides at the great amusement parks afforded a couple privacy and intimacy. They were kind of the hook-up spots of turn-of-the-century New York City.
“Various amusements contrived to lift a women’s skirts and reveal their legs and underclothing while numerous others provided opportunities for intimate physical contact,” explains Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century, by John F. Kasson.
In the late 19th- and early 20th-century, lifeguards were volunteers, often connected with or trained by the U.S. Coast Guard rescue stations along the seacoasts. This photograph is probably from Atlantic City, New Jersey, in about 1900.
Up until the first decades of the 20th century, the only activity for women in the ocean involved jumping through the waves while holding on to a rope attached to an off-shore bouy. By 1915, women athletes started to share the actual sport of swimming with men and thus began to reduce the amount of heavy fabric used in their billowing swimsuits
Modesty was still an issue well into the roaring ‘20's. Still post-Victorian, under the "Bathing Suit Regulations" published in May 17, 1917, men's suits had to be worn with a skirt, or have a top that at least had a skirt effect. The skirt had to be worn outside of the trunks, so that the outline of genitalia could not be seen when the suit was wet. The other alternative was to wear an impractical flannel knee pants with a vest, and a fly front. During this time, the knitting mills were rapidly churning out many styles of suits, including the "speed suit," a one-piece suit with deeply slashed armholes and closed leg trunks. Most bathers did not own a bathing suit. Most suits were rented for a nickel a day. Bathing had become an important weekend activity for the middle class and poor who did not vacation. Going to places like New York’s Coney Island was inexpensive, and an important part of the culture of dating. In short, it was a great way to met girls. Mack Sonnets “Keystone Girls” known as bathing beauties, became very popular.
By the early 1920s women’s bathing suits were reduced to a one piece garment with a long top that covered shorts. Though matching stockings were still worn, swimwear began to shrink and more and more flesh was exposed from the bottom of the trunks to the tops of the stockings. By the mid-1920s Vogue magazine was telling its readers that “the newest thing for the sea is a jersey bathing suit as near a maillot as the unwritten law will permit.”
Then in 1907, a scandal erupted when Australian swimmer, Annette Kellerman, the first woman to swim across the English Channel, was arrested in Boston for wearing a more form-fitting, one-piece suit. (Turns out arrests for indecency on beaches were not uncommon during that time.) Her form-fitting suit paved the way for a new kind of one-piece, and over the next couple decades, as swimming became an even more popular leisure-time activity, beach goers saw more arms, legs, and necks than ever before.
In 1915, Jantzen, a small knittery in Portland, broke new ground by making a “swimming suit” from wool and officially coining the term six years later. Not long after, the company introduced its “Red Diving Girl” logo that was just risqué enough for the time to embody a specific point of view from the Roaring 20s.