The bathing suit has existed in various forms for hundreds, even thousands, of years and has evolved significantly over time. The bathing suit doesn’t truly have one inventor, but rather variety of people who have changed and shaped it. Some of the major contributors to the bathing suit include people who have invented new fabrics, the fashion designers who have invented new styles, and the celebrities who have popularized them.
While many cultures have accepted swimming or sunbathing nude or wearing ordinary clothing at various times, Roman woman often wore two-piece bathing suits, quite similar to modern bikinis, to the public baths. The bathing suit then fell out of fashion until the Victorian era, when bathing suits that covered as much of the body as possible became popular beach wear. Women’s bathing dresses included stockings, hats and sleeves, and were made from woolen materials that became heavy when wet.
In 1910, Carl Jantzen, John Zehntbauer and C.R. Zehntbauer founded what later became the Jantzen bathing suit company and invented a simple two-piece wool outfit that was originally used for rowing in cold weather. Various designers began to make more practical bathing suits from knits or cotton in the early 1900s, and by the 1920s, both men and women often wore one-piece suits. The French term “maillot” became a popular term for bathing suits among fashion designers and made the English dictionary in 1928.
While styles from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries favored covering the body, fashions and cultures gradually changed to allow more skin exposure and easier swimming. In 1913, Carl Jantzen invented a two-piece women’s suit that was closely fitted in order to allow women to swim more easily and competitively. In 1946, Louis Réard and Jacques Heim reinvented the bikini, allowing the exposure of the midriff. While bikinis originally covered the navel, fashion designers began inventing designs that cut away more of the fabric, leading all the way to Rudi Gernreich’s invention of the monokini, or topless bikini, in 1964. In 1990, Carol Wior patented the Slimsuit, designed to flatter the figures of plus-size women. In 2005, designer Aheda Zanetti introduced the burqini, a bathing suit designed to meet the practical and modesty requirements of Muslim women.
The modern bathing suit owes much to the invention of synthetic materials, which allow bathing suits to be much more lightweight, stretchy and water resistant than those made from wool or cotton. A number of people made contributions to the development of commercially available rayon fabrics in the early 1900s. Shortly after, the American Rubber Company invented a stretchy material called lastex, but it was not ideal for swimsuits since the dyes were not waterproof. In 1959, the DuPont company invented spandex, often sold under the brand name Lycra, which remains a popular material for bathing suits.
The development of the bathing suit sometimes owes as much to the people who popularized a particular design as to the fashion designer who invented it. Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer and water ballerina, wore a suit that exposed her arms, legs and neck to the United States in 1907, and was arrested for indecent exposure, forcing her to add more coverings, but paving the way for later design changes. Actresses such as Esther Williams and Betty Grable popularized fashionable bathing suits in the 1940s, and Ursula Andress increased the bikini’s fame in 1962, when she wore a white one in the James Bond film “Dr. No.” Various sports figures, models and actresses continue to influence the popularity of bathing suit styles.
References and ResourcesSwimsuit-style.com gives a brief history of the bathing suit
About.com offers a photographic timeline of the bathing suit