Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist. Read More

Swim Suit Stats

When people started swimming 50,000 years ago, no one bothered with swim suits. Why get the fur wet on your new caveman outfit? When cultural norms demanded that bodies stay covered, skinny dipping went underground and bathing attire was born. Changes in the history of swimsuit design reflect shifting cultural values as well as new beliefs about athletic performance. We’ve seen the body go from naked to covered to nearly nude—and back again. Recent athletic competitions have raised ethical questions about extreme swimwear: is it fair, or is it doping?

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50,000 BC
Everyone swims naked.

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2000 BC
Public baths (swimming pools) are built in Asia, Greece, and the Middle East.

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300 AD
Women appear in a Roman fresco exercising poolside in bikinis.

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1480
Botticelli paints Venus emerging from the sea nude.

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1730
Ocean swimming is rediscovered as a recreation and sport. Seaside resorts appear in England.

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1810
In France, men swim topless, wearing short pants.

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1820
Women wade about in the surf wearing full-length bathing dresses, some with long sleeves and high necks. Ankle-length pantalettes are worn underneath.

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1860s and 70s
Amateur swimming societies are formed in Europe and the U.S., establishing swimming as a sport. (Women do not compete.)

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1880s
European women wear bloomers and short-sleeved blouses into the surf. Many beaches are zoned by gender.

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1896
Swimming becomes an Olympic sport. Men wear short-sleeved body suits. Women do not compete.

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1900s
Short bathing dresses worn with bloomers are popular.

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1900
The maillot pantaloon appears in France. This sleeveless bodysuit covers only the torso and the upper thighs. This scandalous attire is rarely worn in the water, appearing mostly in pinup postcards.

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1905
The Gibson Girl wears a form-fitting bathing dress with tights instead of bloomers. Men wear shorts and a tank top (no bare chests).


> link to male swimwear

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1912
Women can swim in the Olympics. Olympic star Annette Kellerman designs her own swimwear, a unitard made by sewing stockings to a leotard.

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1910s
Annette Kellerman bares her legs in films and postcards, asserting women’s rights to wear safe and efficient swimwear. The maillot becomes socially acceptable on European beaches by the 1920s.

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1924
Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller wears a one-piece tank.

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1925
For both men and women, a combination of shorts and tank top become popular swimwear.

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1930s
The two-piece (deux-pièces) suit is born, revealing a tiny band of belly. The navel stays undercover.

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1937
In the U.S., men earn the right to swim topless.

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1946
In Paris, Louis Réard registers the name “bikini” for his minimal, belly-baring two-piece suit for women.

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1948
Male swimmers compete in streamlined swim trunks.

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1967
Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz gets the gold in skimpy striped swim briefs.

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1970s
For competitive swimming, women wear one-piece tank suits. Suits for men get tinier and tinier. The theory: wearing less improves performance.

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2000
Several Olympic swimmers from Britain and Australia wear high-tech bodysuits to enhance their performance.

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2006
Borat struts his stuff in a mankini.

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2007
The Burquini is designed by Aheda Zanetti (Australia) and Shereen Sabet (California) to allow Muslim women swim while covered. The suits are an international success.

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2008
Michael Phelps, Katie Hoff, and other Olympic swimmers compete in polyurethane-laced, muscle-compressing, body-covering Speedo LZR Racer suits. Although it his widely believed that polyurethane makes swimmers more buoyant, tests administered by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Spring 2009 proved otherwise. (Thanks, David Guthrie, for this info.)

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2009
German Paul Biedermann, wearing the Arena X-Glide suit, made almost entirely of polyurethane, crushes Phelps at the world swimming championships in Rome.

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2009
The world swimming organization FINA announces ban on “technology doping” via swimsuits.

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2009
The Burquini is banned by a French community pool. Many French swimming pools also ban Bermuda shorts or baggy swim shorts for men, requiring all dudes to wear skin-tight pants. Both rulings are made on hygienic grounds.

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Inspiration: Stepanova, Soviet sportswear from 1920s. Graphic design meets fashion.

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Sources

http://www.bikiniscience.com/chronology/3000BC-1700_SS/3000BC-1700.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/aug/12/speedos-fashion

http://swimming.about.com/od/swimmingolympics/ss/swim_hist_pics.htm

http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/gallery/2009/jul/29/swim-suits-supersuits-history-michael-phelps