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November 10, 2022

Ladies Swimwear of the 1940s

In classical antiquity and in most cultures, swimming was either in the nude or the swimmer would merely strip to their underwear. In the Renaissance, swimming was strongly discouraged, and into the 18th century swimming was regarded as of doubtful morality, and had to be justified on health grounds. In the Victorian era swimwear was of a style of outer clothing of the time, which were cumbersome and even dangerous in the water, especially in the case of dress-style swimwear for women. Since the early 20th century, swimming came to be regarded as a legitimate leisure activity or pastime and clothing made specifically for swimming became the norm. Since then, swimwear for women has become increasingly more scanty and form-fitting, and the use of high-tech materials has become more common.


Women’s swimwear of the 1930s and 1940s incorporated increasing degrees of midriff exposure. Teen magazines of late 1940s and 1950s featured similar designs of midriff-baring suits and tops. However, midriff fashion was stated as only for beaches and informal events and considered indecent to be worn in public.

Because of the figure-hugging nature of these garments, glamour photography since the 1940s and 1950s has often featured people wearing swimsuits. This type of glamour photography eventually evolved into swimsuit photography exemplified by the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Beauty contests also required contestants to wear form-fitting swimsuits.

Two-piece swimsuits without the usual skirt panel and other superfluous material started appearing in the U.S. when the government ordered the 10% reduction in fabric used in woman’s swimwear in 1943 as wartime rationing. By that time, two-piece swimsuits were ubiquitous on American beaches. Hollywood stars like Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner tried similar swimwear or beachwear. Pin ups of Hayworth and Esther Williams in the costume were widely distributed.

The most provocative swimsuit was the 1946 Moonlight Buoy, a bottom and a top of material that weighed only eight ounces. What made the Moonlight Buoy distinctive was a large cork buckle attached to the bottoms, which made it possible to tie the top to the cork buckle and splash around au naturel while keeping both parts of the suit afloat. Life magazine had a photo essay on the Moonlight Buoy and wrote, “The name of the suit, of course, suggests the nocturnal conditions under which nude swimming is most agreeable.”


































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