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March 7, 2016

Historical Timeline of Vintage Women's Bathing Suits from 1915 to 1945

This particular article from LIFE magazine, July 9, 1945, includes a historical timeline of vintage swimsuits, modeled by a LIFE model.

Bathing Suits - They have come a long way but cannot go any further

In 1905 a lady's bathing suit was made of ten yards of material, in 1945 it is made from one. Between these two statistics and these two dates lie a social revolution and an annually expanding area of bare, brown flesh. The revolution has made it quite permissible for even the most proper women to appear on public beaches in costumes which used to be seen only in the rowdiest cabarets.

Prior mover of the revolution was Annette Kellerman, the first famous woman swimmer. In 1910 Miss Kellerman became more famous by discarding the ruffles and heavy corset that went with bathing dresses and appearing unabashed in a tight, one-piece suit. This set a pattern for the Mack Sennett girls and the Atlantic City bathing beauties, who found that scanty suits could bring fame and fortune. Then in 1926 Gertrude Ederle wore only brassier and shorts to swim the English Channel. Her brief costume was chosen for athletic reasons but it gave many nonathletic women an idea. The U.S. took up the cult of sun bathing. Nudity was acclaimed as the secret of good health. It was easy to rationalize, though not to prove, that the more bodily area exposed and tanned each summer, the fewer colds next winter.

Since 1930 U.S. bathing suit manufacturers have made money by cutting something more off their suits each year. Neither sermons nor ordinances nor arrests have slowed the steady progress for bloomers to one-piece suit to bra and diaper pants, a progress recorded on the following pages in a series of suits modeled by Pamela Randell. But in 1945 both maker and wearer are at the end of their rope; there is - or seems to be - nothing more to cut off.

Thirty years separate the two suits above. The 1915 model (left) cost $30, the 1945 model (right), $13.

1917 - In the third year of World War I a womans bathing suit consisted of a heavy wool chemise which was worn over bloomers. Shoes and stockings were taken off only by the very daring and unconventional.

1918 - Although skirts got a little shorter, beach outfits like this, according to fashion magazines, were designed, "to defy wind, wave and the scrutiny of man." Water wings were also much in use by women.

1919 - War ended with suits more form fitting, still modest. Stockings were required. Tights under suit were called Annette Kellermans after Australian swimmer who invented them.

1920 - Flapper era began with the shocking, tight fitted knit suit. The neckline was lower but long underpants and stocking remained. This is the first popular suit made by famous Jantzen.

1924 - This was a big year for Jantzen and the Red Diving Girl insignia appeared on windshields of 3,000,000 U.S. cars. Stockings were at last discarded. Neckline is lower and armholes have begun to get bigger.

1926 - This year saw the introduction of the fancy "dressmaker" suit, tighter and more revealing but with frills. The popular materials were jersey and pure silk. By now women were really swimming, not mearly bathing.

1929 - Dressmaker suit still let a girl with a poor figure look pretty when she went swimming. This was a boom year when people drove to the beach in big, open Cadillacs and paid $500 for a season for a cabana.

1930 - The Depression and a sudden trend to nudity set in together. On the beach men and women looked about the same in their belted suits. In pools about the country Eleanor Holm was beginning to be famous.

1931- Stores sold 12,000,000 suits in this depression. People had discovered swimming and bathing were cheap recreation. Rage for dressmakers was declining except for older women.

1932 - Backless one piece suits were the new style. Skirts had now been hiked to the top of the thighs but necklines were still quite high and few dared to think of a bare midriff.

1933 - The first really slinky bathing suit was maillot borrowed from the Riviera. Police had to control crowds when it was first displayed in a window in New york. It was skintight all over and cut very low in the back.

1934 - This was an adaptation of the maillot. It consisted of a discreet halter fitting into separate pants. The bust was still not shaped. This conservative halter and pants suit paved the way for bra and pants combination.

1935 - This Jantzen was almost a bra and pants suit but had a thin isthmus of material between top and bottom. Sun bathing had by now become a national craze and women let down suits when no one was looking.

1936 - By this time bare midriff suits like this one were widespread. It is really the Riviera maillot cut in half. Bra was not shaped but it was still to much for Rye, N.Y. and Dover, N.J. where it was banned.

1938 - Lastex suits, very tight with molded bras, were worn everywhere. It was also the era of the clammy, easily torn, all-rubber suit. This was about the last summer men wore any tops.

1940 - Girls could still appear on the beach and be in fashion with a one piece suit. This was the year fro short skating skirts on suits, many dots and flowers. It was also the second year of the war.

1942 - By this time the bra and pants have overtaken the one piece suit in popularity. The bra is shrinking and becoming tighter. In the 1920's wearing such a suit on Long Island would have caused arrest.

1945 - Jantzen suit this year made for mass sale is comparatively conservative. It has a fair-sized bra, skirt covers the pants. By now almost all U.S. beaches have given up trying to regulate the bathing suit.

California suits for 1945 (above) are styled for active swimming. Strictly functional, they have no shoulder straps, minimal diaper-style pants. These suits are ultimate development of the skintight knitted suits which first appeared in early '20s.

East Coast suits are more dressy and feminine. Made of draped material they hint the beginning of the retrogression to ruffles and frills. Many have long detachable skirts. In the picture below, the suits are paired to show each with and without skirt.


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