Bikini – a Revolutionary Garment that Marked the 20th Century

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Just a thought of going to the beach puts a smile on our face. We imagine ourselves lounging in the sun and flaunting our tanned bodies or surrendering to the cool sea embrace… Next to us lies a woman in a stunning, perfectly suited bikini.
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Bathing suit, hm… Do I need a new one? I wonder if I can still fit into last year’s? Are that pattern and colour still ‘in’ this summer? There’s no girl who hasn’t given this a thought.

All credit for the popular bikini goes to France, the country of haute couture, wine, cheese and croissants.

Still, let us go back to how it all started.

Swimwear was definitely not something our distant ancestors had given any thought to. They were nudists, enjoying streams, rivers, lakes and the sea without any clothing constraints. Still, even back in those ancient times, bathing was turned into a pleasurable ritual. In ancient Greece and Rome, bathrooms, bathtubs and public bathhouses were quite common. Bathing became popular not only for hygienic but also for health and religious reasons, and public baths were the centres of social life.

Although the toga was a predominant item in both men’s and women’s bathhouses, numerous Roman murals prove that two-piece women’s bathing suits were worn as well. A mural found in a 4th-century Roman villa in Piazza Armerina, Sicily depicts women wearing what we now call a bikini. So, we cannot take all the glory for this innovation.

Bikini illustration

Being the great conquerors, the Romans spread their culture of public baths and thermal spas throughout Europe. Unfortunately, after the fall of the Roman Empire bathing was no longer perceived as a pastime. Baths were turned into healing facilities, and during the Middle Ages they almost ceased to exit. Back then, nudity was unthinkable, and since there were no garments intended for bathing, people would do it in their everyday clothes.

At the end of the golden era, public baths fell into oblivion, mainly as a result of the pressure coming from the church as the moral authority. Costly fuel for heating the water was one of the reasons as well, and a new trend of ‘bathing’ in perfume started in France.

The first swimwear was designed in late 18th century, when the seaside was deemed an ideal place for vacationing. The garments very much looked like nightwear of the era – a long corseted gown, with special footwear and socks, and a hat. The skirts would often have weights sewn into them, so as not to float up inappropriately. The fabric used was quite heavy, mostly woollen, to prevent sticking to the body when wet.

After the hard times that the human bodies and bathing practices went through, there came the 20th century when the real history of bathing suits began. Those designed in America were practically identical for both women and men, covering almost the entire body.

Bikini illustration


4th century

– A Sicilian mural depicts women wearing bikini-like outfits.

17th century

– Special cabins were mandatory at the beaches. Fully dressed bathers would enter the so-called bathing machine, pulled by the horses into the water, where they would change and take a swim before signalling to the driver to return so that they could get dressed back for the public.

18th century

– Women wore plain long work robes at the beach, concealing their figures and having weights sewn in to prevent the fabric from floating up.

19th century

– Men in England were banned from bathing in leather clothes; only woven swimwear was allowed.

– Women wore baggy trousers and flannel dresses.


– The first beauty contest ever recorded was held in Delaware; it featured female bathers, with Thomas Edison as a judge.


– Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman appeared in a tight, one-piece bathing suit in a competition in Boston, and got arrested for indecent exposure.


– Australian swimmer Fanny Durack wore a tight bathing suit when she broke the world record at 100 metres and won the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Stockholm.


– The first beauty pageant edition, today’s Miss America, was held in Atlantic City and featured a bathing suit competition.


– Cubism is reflected in the bathing suits designed by the famous haute couture brands such as Elsa Schiaparelli, Izod, etc.

– Photographer George Hoyningen-Huene captures legendary bathing suit models for the French Vogue.


Esther Williams introduces a new film genre in the Bathing Beauty aqua musical.


Louis Réard presents a two-piece bathing suit, naming it bikini, after the Bikini Atoll where the Americans had tested the atomic bomb four days before the fashion show.


Brigitte Bardot wears a bikini in And God Created Woman.

– Speedo debuts as a sponsor of the Australian swimming team that won eight gold medals at the Olympic Games in Melbourne, making the brand globally popular.


Ursula Andress appears in a legendary scene of the James Bond film Dr. No wearing a white bikini with a knife tucked in.


– Sports Illustrated publishes the first ever edition dedicated to bathing suits.


Jodie Foster makes a debut in a Coppertone commercial showing a happy family on the beach.


– After filming One Million Years BC, Raquel Welch becomes every man’s dream.


– Brazilians introduce a new trend, the thong, inspired by traditional clothes from the Amazon.


– A space bikini worn by Princess Leia in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi will be treasured for life by Star Wars enthusiasts.


– The Miss World pageant moves from India to the Seychelles following large-scale protests against competition in bathing suits.

Karl Lagerfeld designs the tiniest bikini ever, to be worn at a fashion show by Stella Tennant.


– The Miss America pageant officially bans bathing suit competition, i.e. bikini and thong appearances.


– The bathing suit worn by Ursula Andress in Dr. No gets sold at an auction for £40,000.


– Vrbnik on the island of Krk puts up signs banning its residents and tourists from entering the town in bathing suits, thus creating a ‘virtuous zone’.


– Barcelona bans bikinis on the streets, introducing a fine of 300 euros.


– Singer Rihanna shops in Cannes in a more-than-revealing one-piece bathing suit.


Kim Kardashian posts an Instagram photo of herself in a skimpy vintage Chanel bikini, setting the Internet on fire.


– High-waisted bikinis are out and low-cut bikinis are back in fashion, especially the string ones.

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