I love the beach. I can’t imagine going a lifetime without swimming in it. Yet it wasn’t until the mid-1700s that people bathed in the ocean--and then it was only for health reasons. There was no such thing as a swimsuit, of course. Historians believe the first seabathers went into the ocean in the buff.
That was a problem for women. How exactly did one walk into the ocean in your all-together without anyone seeing? One Quaker solved this dilemma by invented a bathing machine that was basically a hut on wheels with steps leading up to the door.
A woman would climb up into the hut and, while a horse pulled it into the sea, she would undress. A canopy was then let down over the door and steps. She would discreetly descend down the steps and into the water with the help a female servant (called a dipper).
It would be another 100 years before people went swimming in the ocean for fun. Even then bathers didn’t swim, they only immersed themselves--again, not an easy task for women wearing layers of heavy garments.
So special clothing evolved which allowed for greater freedom, yet still retained the wearer’s modesty. They were made in flannel, then serge, alpaca and twilled cotton. Stockings of silk or wool were still a must, along with shoes.
In 1907, an Australian swimmer wore a new one-piece bathing suit--which revealed her legs and arms--to a swimming demonstration in Boston and was promptly arrested. But over the next twenty years the one-piece became the norm for women. Advances in synthetic fabrics allowed for a firmer fit and swimsuit designers dispensed with wool bathing costumes all together.
The bikini made its first appearance in 1946. When it was initially conceived by fashion designer Louis Reard, society reacted in horror, and the bikini didn't become acceptable to wear until well into the 1950s.
Two factors that helped to bring the bikini into the mainstream was the 1960 hit Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini and Sports Illustrated Magazine’s swimsuit issues.
As for me, I’m all about one-pieces. Still, I wonder if the women in the 1800s stressed about swimsuit shopping as much as we do?