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August 3, 2021

Swimwear of the 1930s Designed by Peter O’Sullivan

While the 1920s started the trend for leisure activities like swimming, it was economic changes in the 1930s that made swimming a pastime for everyone, not just those lucky enough to live near a beach.

The silhouette of the 1930s swimsuit took on direct inspiration from men’s swimsuits (which were still one pieces). Men were encouraged to build a muscular yet lean sportsman’s body. Women also needed to slim down into an athletic body that was tall, lean, and curvy up top to flatter the latest bias cut dresses.

Bathing suits in the early 1930s changed little from the 1920s styles. Some now had striped tops like men’s swimwear had and others had much lower backs. Appliques of sea-life, anchors, and birds gave simple swimsuits some charm.

1930s swimsuits were cut to show off more leg and more back skin than ever before. The thin straps also made the shoulders appear broader and more athletic. The new shape became what we know as the modern swimsuit today.

Melbourne based swimwear designer Peter O’Sullivan became the first Australian to successfully design and manufacturer swimwear for export to the United States by creating two innovations. He is purported to have designed the square belt buckle, a feature popularly known as the ‘Superman Buckle’ and throughout the 1930s submitted patents for innovative designs both within Australian as well as England and America. These applications include designs for the small skirt across the front of both men’s and women’s swimsuits known as the ‘modesty panel’ and an inbuilt support system for men’s bathers.

A set of rare photos from the Australian National Maritime Museum that shows swimwear styles designed by Peter O’Sullivan for women in the 1930s.


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