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Why even wear a bathing suit?

Jun 24, 2015

bikini and swimtrunks lying on the sand

Ok, ok…. we’re not getting suggestive here. The answer is obvious: to make a fashion statement, to have coverage during your water adventures, or something to quickly rip on or off your sun-kissed body when the mood hits.

But it got us thinking… what did people do prior to the advent of bathing suits? Actually, ready for this? Swimmers cavorted in the buff. Yes. You heard right. We did some research on this and it’s true: bathing suits didn’t used to exist, and all classical pictures of swimming show nude swimmers.  If folks used to swim in the buff, why don’t we continue to do so? Why do we spend our hard earned money covering our, arguably, most valuable parts with colorful bathing suits? Let’s take a look into the past…

The English practice of men swimming naked was formally banned in 1860. It does seem that the Brits led the way on swimming apparel regulations and interesting apparatuses. For example, were you aware of a creature called a “bathing machine”?

Bathing machines were principally used in the 1800’s before bathing suits were invented. These “machines” allowed women to access the water without being viewed. Designed by Benjamin Beale, a Quaker, the structure allowed women the pleasures of bathing in a private manner. The structure, similar in design to a sizeable outhouse, sat on axels and large wheels. They were pushed in/pulled out of the water via horses in a manner similar to a plow horse tilling the field. Some resorts were savvy enough to have rails leading into the water upon which the bathing machines were tracked.

bathing carriage   woman stepping into a bathing carriage

A would-be swimmer entered the machine in full street attire, removed their clothing and were lowered into the water. Later, when bathing suits were invented, female swimmers would change and store their clothes in a compartment high inside the room. Once lowered, swimmers (mostly women, although also used in some areas by men) would exit directly into the water with the bathing machine structure shielding view from beach onlookers. Sometimes “dippers” (stronger females or males) would be available to help swimmers in and out of the water. This has us a little curious… Does this mean that “dippers” were “peekers” as well?

drawing of an man and a women and a bathing carriage

In the early 1900’s mixed gender bathing became acceptable, so bathing machines transitioned to beachside changing rooms and later cabanas. I guess we could say that an 1800’s “male dipper” is analogous to today’s “cabana boy”.

Some of the first bathing suits were made from flannel, believing the warmer fabric would help protect against the colder water. Originally, women wore “bathing gowns” that would not be transparent when wet. Men would wear a form-fitting garment that resembled “long john” underwear made from wool. This design stayed consistent in men’s “bathing” wear for a century. There were two-piece designs for women, but they still essentially covered the entire body.

Mans bathing suit from Diana non shrink knitting    full body bathing suit    mens two piece bathing suit

It wasn’t until after WWII that the first bikinis became acceptable and fashionable, however, the bottoms had to cover the naval. Small bit of trivia: Bikini’s are named after “ Bikini Atoll” in the Marshall Islands. The Bikini islands were the site of extensive nuclear tests and had become fairly well known at time. Designer  Louis Reard introduced the bikini at a Paris fashion show in 1946. It was described as “the atom bomb of fashion” and “like the bomb, the bikini is small and devastating”.

It wasn’t until the 1960’s that men’s swim trunks and women’s design “lost fabric” and became an entirely different fashion statement. Over the past 50 years designs and fabrics have changed and quite frankly, gone back and forth from “less is more” to “more is better”. It genuinely depends on which beach in what part of the world you happen to be playing on. 

For us…well, no bikini’s yet in our collection, but we have colorful men’s swim trunks and swim cargoes for one heck of a studly look…that is…as studly as you can look while covering your assets!  It’s not always practical to go nude…and we’re by no means discouraging the practice, but it is practical to have fabrics that breathe and dry quickly, have plenty of storage for personal items, and look great for your next rendezvous with our favorite element, H2O.

man in madda fella swim trunks lying on a rock  handsome couple walking together on the beach  collection of Madda Fella swim trunks

Photo Credits:  

1. Clothes on beach: Shutterstock, Inc. 2. "Bognor: West Beach from Pier" (scanned vintage post card) 3. Beach bathing machines: No listing of publisher, date, nor any assertion of copyright. 4. "Don't Be Afraid", c. 1910. Scanned from period postcard. No listing of publisher, date, nor any assertion of copyright.  5. Cover photograph from Diana Non-Shrink Knitting, ca. 1930's 6. Diana Non-Shrink Knitting, Patons and Baldwins Help to Knitters (book cover), c. 1930's 7. Lady bathers: Dorothea and Maryal Knox in the surf at Rye, NY, ca.1900. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University. 8. Utopia Yarn Book, circa 1910. Courtesy Peggy, Iva Rose Reproductions


  • Stephen on Jul 01, 2016

    Good article, but there are a couple of things you got wrong. You indicated that, starting in the 1960s, “men’s swim trunks and women’s design “lost fabric” and became an entirely different fashion statement.” While this is generally true for women’s suits, the same does not hold true for men’s suits. The large flannel suits for men that you mentioned, made out of a flannel material, were pricey and very few men could afford them. Therefore for most of the late 1800s and early 1900s men either continued to swim naked or, when this was not possible, they wore a much smaller suit that covered about as much as the modern swimming briefs. In some parts of the country, however, male nudity while swimming was still so common that swim teams would compete in the buff in front of mixed audiences. This continued in a few places as recently as the early 1960s. By the 1920s these swim briefs gave way in some parts of the country to the longer flannel suits you mentioned above, largely due to local ordinances in some places that forbid males from appearing bare-chested in public. These ordinances didn’t last long, however, and by the late 1930s the tops were off again. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s most male swim trunks were similar in style to the modern speedo, albeit covering just a bit more. Starting in the late 1950s and early 1960s there was a divergence in swimwear, with new swim trunks either covering a bit more or a bit less. The longer swim trunks were popularized by surfers, who needed protection for their upper legs when sitting on their surfboards due to the wax that would rip off their leg hair with some of the skin if they didn’t have a layer of cloth between the board and their upper legs. For much of the 1960s the shorter brief-style swimwear continued to gain in popularity, and is now dominant in most of the world. In the United States, however, the longer board shorts of the surfers caught on with the larger population as the 1970s gave way to the 1980s and 1990s. They still are more popular than the swim briefs, although the latter are starting to have a resurgence.

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