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Vintage Holiday Style Through the Ages: Swimsuit Focus

Posted on August 01 2019

Summer is fun for so many reasons. 

Pop anthems are played on repeat until they aren’t so fun anymore, any and all free-time is spent lounging in the sunshine with a beer in hand, Love Island is on television every night … and, perhaps our favourite part about Summer, the holidays. 

Wherever you choose to spend your summer holidays, whether that be Swansea or Miami, it’s likely you have spent a massive proportion of time in the lead up thinking about what to wear. This is understandable, as fashion as complicated as is, yet holiday fashion even more so. This is only heightened by the worse-case scenario packing hysteria best summarised by this tweet

To help you, we have crafted this informative guide to holiday style through the ages, with a focus on the birth of the bikini and its ever-changing silhouette.

If anything, it will help you to feel less alone to know that even over 100 years ago, people still packed an unnecessary amount of underwear.


The 1910s were a very different time. Advances in mass transit and the spread of the idea of “leisure time” (we don’t want to live in a world where that doesn’t exist either!) made summer holidays, and subsequently the beach, more accessible to everyone. No longer reserved for the upper class, people from all classes could now holiday, and they wanted to do so in style!

At the turn of the century, we saw the swimming costume transform from a multi-layered woolen dress into a less restrictive and heavy form. Women exposed their arms, hemlines rose to the mid-thighs and less fabric was used to conceal a woman’s natural figure. 

It is clear that what we wear is a reflection of the social climate we live in, and in the 1910s, with the birth of the Suffrage movement, more and more women began working outside the home. Women felt that they deserved more, and began to fight for the case that they could do just as much as their male counterparts.

An example of this can be seen in the rise of female athletes, and they certainly couldn’t swim as well as men if they were doing so in wool!

Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer, made history when she was arrested in Boston for wearing a form-hugging one-piece suit which was deemed ‘indecent’. This incident only served to popularise the swimsuit, and the sleeveless one-piece became the prototype of the modern bikini

Annette Kellerman, c. 1913.


The 1920's were the reign of the flapper. A new type of women who, bored with the tame and modest Victorian ideals, created their own. The flapper was rebellious and pleasure-seeking, and swim wear evolved to reflect just that. 

Bathing suits were tight-fitted, often in a tunic style, with tank shoulders, a belt, and close-fitting shorts underneath. The swimsuit became a couture fashion statement in the Roaring Twenties, and we haven’t really looked back. 

The 1920's marked the reign of the flapper. The flapper was a new type of women who, bored with the tame and modest Victorian ideals of femininity, decided to create their own. 

The flapper was rebellious, the flapper was pleasure-seeking, and thus clothing styles had to evolve to reflect this. Swim wear became tight-fitted, with tank shoulders, cinched belt and close-fitting shorts underneath. 

Tanning also became fashionable for the first time in the 1920's, with the thanks to Coco Channel, who caught too much sun on a Mediterranean cruise. Swimsuit designs had to incorporate more functional considerations, with this in mind and thus exposed more skin than ever before.

The swimming costume became something of a couture fashion statement in the 1920's, and we haven’t really looked back. 

Women in Swimsuits, c. 1920s.


In the 1930's, romper suits became immensely popular, and knee-length bathing dresses went out of vogue once and for all. Stylish holiday resorts were frequented by women wearing revealing swimsuits, styles which were concurrently being seen on the silver screen with the birth of Hollywood.

Actresses such as Dorothy Lamour popularised the style, as seen below. 

A flash of leg and a bare shoulder became the trend as women started to wear swimsuits with shortened hems. This was partly a result of fabric rations during World War II, but mainly the shortened swimsuit was a reflection of society’s changing attitudes towards women. 

One-third of women now worked outside of the home, attended universities and had doors opening for new and exciting job opportunities. During the war, women were also in many cases the sole breadwinner, learning how to depend on themselves to make ends meet. Women were bolder and more comfortable in their dominance. Their swimsuits then reflected this change.

Dorothy Lamour, c 1930s.


In the 1940's, due to an increasing fabric shortage and the trend for skimpiness, the swimsuit was split in two and the bikini was born. Named after the Bikini Atoll, where the nuclear bomb had first been tested, the bikini was debuted by French model Micheline Bernadini at a poolside fashion show in Paris. The designer, Louis Reard, claimed that a bikini was not a genuine bikini “unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring”. 

Popular in Europe, the bikini was deemed too risque until Hollywood stars such as Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner were seen wearing them. 

Micheline Bernadini, c. 1946.


Bikinis were growing in popularity among certain, younger demographics, but the more conservative types tried to have the bikini banned. 

Beaches across the world tried to ban bikinis, as did the Miss World Pageant after the winner was crowned in a bikini. These bans were met with resistance, and more than 50,000 letters were sent in support of the bikini highlighting the changing tides of cultural norms. 

Despite all this, the ultimate French cool-girl Bridget Bardot was seen wearing a bikini on every beach in the South of France throughout the 1950s. Hollywood starlets, such as Marilyn Monroe and Esther Williams, followed suit in America as sexuality became less shocking and more pop culture. 

Bridget Bardot, c. 1950s.


The social and political climate evolved immensely during the 1960's, with Second Wave Feminism and the Sexual Revolution influencing the cultural zeitgeist. This was paralleled in the way we dressed, exhibited no more so than swimwear attire

Women had adopted the mindset that they were free to wear whatever they choose fit (and rightfully so!), and the hippie mentality of the decade encouraged women to embrace their body and share it without shame. 

The song “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” was a hit in the charts, and “beach bunny” films were as popular as ever. The bikini of the 1960's, then, can be characterised as the string bikini. The string bikini was even briefer than its predecessor, with string ties for the minimal halter bra and the bottoms worn low on the hip. 

Designer Rudi Gernerich debuted his monokini in 1964; essentially the first women’s topless swimsuit. A lot of things, then, were happening in the 1960's that pushed the bikini towards its iconic style we know today. 

Deborah Walley, c. 1966.


The 1980's bought two very distinct changes to the bikini.

Firstly, was the discovery of new man-made water-resistant fabrics which also allowed you to tan through them. This lead to a resurgence of sorts, in the one-piece swimming costume, only this time in brighter and bolder colours!

The second was a new-found inclination to wear bottoms with very high sides, drawn over the hip bones. The swimwear of the 1980's, then, has a very clear aggressive sexuality to it - sculpting your body at the gym became popular, and being a forward,  bold woman was the pinnacle of independence. Women were taking charge and pushing against the glass ceilings of the corporate world and the new bathing suits demonstrate this newfound ambition.

Morgan Fairchild, c. 1980s. 

Today, we are free to wear whatever we want on the beach, for we live in an age where all bodies are beach bodies (and rightfully so!).

We have the choice to show as much or as little skin as we like. If you lean towards the latter, we can take some inspiration from our brothers and sisters of the past when it comes to interesting ways to interpret summer style and beachwear

You can shop our range of swimwear online, and read more of our informative style guides such as dad-chic guide here!


 Words Chardonnay West

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