by Stefanie | 07.23.21
Picture it. Boston. 1907. It's a scorcher of a day and people have flocked to Revere Beach to enjoy a few hours of fun in the sun. The women are dressed in their finest puffy bathing dresses (with corsets!) and bloomers. They sit near the water’s edge or wade a few feet into the water but no one is swimming because these contraptions weigh well over 20 pounds when wet. Suddenly there’s a commotion on the shore. Men are yelling, women can’t bear to look, the police are called. No, it’s not a shark attack or a bloody fight. It’s worse. It's a woman in a one piece bathing suit that is showing her...LOWER LEGS. No corset, no bloomers and no puffy dress - how scandalous!
That woman was Australian swimmer and actress Annette Kellerman. She was the original advocate for moving away from Victorian era swimwear and into something that would actually allow women to move in the water. Regarding the incident, Kellerman famously said “I want to swim. And I can’t swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothesline.” She created her own swimwear line featuring the one-piece tank suit and it caught on quickly. In just a few years it was the accepted suit in most of Europe and America.
Fast forward 20 years. World War II is raging, supplies are being rationed and fabric is much harder to come by. Women’s skin is being bared more than ever before. The first two piece bathing suit appears and consists of a halter top and full coverage bottoms that extend up to the bottom of the rib cage. Though it is certainly skimpier than previous suits, the two piece at least has the decency to cover one very provocative part of the female body - the navel. That’s right, moderate cleavage is acceptable as long as that belly button is nowhere to be seen.
Turn the time travel dial another notch and we find ourselves in 1946 Paris. Two men are hard at work, each creating their own iteration of the two-piece swimsuit. The world is still reeling from the lasting effects of war and people everywhere are morbidly fascinated by the power of the atomic bombs that the Americans used in Japan. In fact, anything considered intense is called “atomic” and beautiful women are referred to as “bombshells.” It's not surprising then that both men give their creations nuclear nicknames. Jacques Heim calls his suit the “atome” and just two months later Louis Reard introduces “le bikini,” named after the very recent nuclear testing done at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
Heim’s atome swimsuit was certainly skimpy but Reard’s bikini was downright scandalous by comparison. It literally consisted of four triangles of fabric tied together with string. In fact, after approaching models and actresses, the only person willing to model it was a 19 year old French nude dancer! Despite the controversy (or possibly because of it), the bikini became wildly popular and the atome faded into obscurity. Soon it was featured on beaches everywhere as well as on the silver screen. By the 1960s women everywhere were baring more skin than ever before. Heck, even men were getting in on the action with the advent of the Speedo. Similar to Annette Kellerman’s experience way back in the early 1900s, a group of men were arrested on Australia’s Bondi Beach in August 1961 for flaunting what their mamas gave them in barely-there bottoms. The men were eventually acquitted but the Speedo had joined the ranks of the formerly scandalous bikini and permanently left its mark. Speedo swimsuits even turned out to be way more aerodynamic than their tank suit counterpoints and were soon adopted by world-class swimmers and divers to improve their times.
Nowadays skimpy suits for both women and men are not only accepted but celebrated. Though far from perfect, we have come a long way as a society towards celebrating self-acceptance and silencing the haters. Barely there swimwear is no longer the star of the show; the focus now is on the healthy, gorgeous skin you choose to bare.
Confidence is our most swoon-worthy asset so silence that voice inside that says “I can’t” and channel your inner Annette. You can and you should do what makes you feel beautiful. Period. End of story.