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The History of Women’s Swimwear

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Bathing Suit History from the Greeks to the 19th Century

Brio is celebrating the history of women’s swimwear! We’re going to cover the timeline of the biggest moments in swimwear fashion. Look out for our next posts to see how swimsuits evolved from full-length dresses to tiny bikinis.

We may know swimming today as an activity for fun or exercise. This is a relatively recent idea. Water and the beach wasn’t always a place to relax.

Bikinis in antiquity

The first recorded use of bathing suits showed women wearing togas to bathe back in 350 B.C. Later, in the 4th century A.D., Roman murals showed woman playing sports and exercising in clothing that looked a lot like the modern-day bikini.

After the Roman Empire fell, water-based activities went out of style. Europeans viewed the sea as a source of disease. It wasn’t until many years later that the water was viewed as healthy.

A return to swimming (in a fashion)

Swimsuits in the 19th century
How’s this for a stylish swimwear?

Swimming as we know it today didn’t start until the late 18th century when improvements to transportation made beach vacations a popular activity. Even then, swimming was more about splashing around. People weren’t taking advantage of water’s full potential for leisure and exercise.

Women swam in ankle-length dresses. They sometimes even sewed lead weights into the hems to keep them from floating up in the water.

Later, in the mid-19th century, women wore long dresses over bloomers made of heavy flannel. In both cases, the focus was on making sure women were covered up.

Victorian swim styles

Swimwear history - the bathing machine
The bathing machine, because you can never be too modest.

During this period, women used bathing machines, a house-like structure on wheels. The machines were used to keep women as unseen as possible. Women would change inside the machine. The whole cabin was then drawn into the water so she could step out for a 15-30 minute paddle.

By the end of the 19th century, dresses became shorter. Women still covered up with stockings and bathing slippers. Swimming remained a brief activity and women were still heavily restricted. This all began to change in the 20th century.