In the Swim

Feb. 07, 1989
Feb. 07, 1989

Table of Contents
Feb. 7, 1989

  • Here's a portfolio of six new covers featuring your SI models in swimsuit venues of the past

Point After

In the Swim

Through the centuries, swimsuits have gone from the ridiculous to the sublime, with a few strange stops in between

By William Oscar Johnson

In the beginning there was water, and over the next couple of billion years, God proceeded to create fish, fowl, man, woman, the beach, the flannel bathing gown, the one-piece woolen swimsuit, the two-piece Lastex suit, the shoestring bikini, the see-through mesh suit and Cheryl Tiegs. There you have it, a skin-deep history of the evolution of mankind and marine life on earth. For those of you interested only in the Big Picture—in grand schemes and divine designs—this is all you need to know, and you should turn directly to page 232, where the big pictures in this issue begin. For you readers with a penchant for little-known facts, read on to learn how the swimsuit evolved from something that had all the grace and charm of a collapsed pup tent into the world's most provocative form of female apparel.

This is an article from the Feb. 7, 1989 issue Original Layout


In the 17th century bathing—as swimming was known then—was generally a passive activity. Bathers sought the health-giving qualities of water rather than vigorous exercise. Sometimes one immersed oneself in the cold sea and sometimes in the warm, curative springs of spas. But whatever the temperature of the water, rarely was much skin displayed. Following a visit to Bath, the British spa, in 1687, a traveler wrote: "The ladyes goes into the bath with garments made of a fine yellow canvas, with great sleeves like a parson's gown, the water fills it up so that its borne off that your shape is not seen.... The Gentlemen have drawers and wastcoates of the same sort of canvas."

A century or so later the bathing machine, a sort of cabana on wheels, was invented. It allowed the psychotically modest to spend a day at the beach in complete privacy. The bathing machine was later improved with the addition of a "modesty hood," an awning that extended into the water. The hood was the brainstorm of Benjamin Beale, a Quaker from England who had been troubled by the sight of women emerging from the sea in soaking-wet flannel dresses. Horses would haul a bathing machine far enough into the ocean so that no one could see the woman inside as she changed from her thick layers of land clothing into her almost-as-thick layers of water clothing.


Going naked into the water was not unheard of among respectable women of the 17th century. An anonymous poem called The Swimming Lady spoke of "a virgin lady bright and gay" who appeared on a river bank one day and...

With glittering glance,
her jealous eyes
Did slyly look about
To see if any lurking spies
Were hid to find her out:
And being well resolved that none
Could view her nakedness,
She puts her robes off, one by one,
And doth herself undress.

Any woman worth her wiles knew that if properly used, even a 19th-century head-to-toe swimming dress could be more provocative than nudity. In 1856, The Observer of London described a day of bathing at the English coastal resort of Ramsgate: "The water is black with bathers...the females do not venture beyond the serf [sic], and lay themselves on their backs, waiting for the coming waves, with their bathing dresses in a most dègagèe [sic] style. The waves come, and in the majority of instances, not only cover the fair bathers, but literally carry their dresses up to their neck, so that, as far as decency is concerned, they might as well be without any dresses at all...and all this takes place in the presence of thousands of spectators... the gentlemen come to look at the ladies bathing...."


No person in this century did more to make the female anatomy a visible—as well as a respectable—element of swimsuit fashion than Annette Kellerman, the swimmer who starred for years in vaudeville as The Diving Venus and whom a goggle-eyed Harvard professor once pronounced "the most beautifully formed woman of modern times." Kellerman was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1888. When she was a child her legs were weak and bowed, and she needed braces to walk. To increase her strength, Annette began to swim at an early age. Soon she could walk, run and even dance some ballet. By the time she was 10, she had grown into a powerful young girl who won swimming races against many of Australia's best competitors.

When she was 14, her family moved to England, where her father, Frederick, a man down on his luck, decided that Annette's talent as a swimmer might be used to enhance the family's failing fortunes. He announced to the British press that his daughter would swim the Thames River from Putney to Blackwall, a distance of 26 miles. Such a feat was unheard of for anyone, let alone a teenage girl. He also said that she would train for a very short time and that while in training her diet would consist mostly of bread and milk.

Annette completed the swim, became an international heroine and went on to gain fame (and a small fortune from sponsors) by performing other longdistance swimming feats. Twice she failed to become the first woman to swim the English channel, both times after the tide turned against her. Though Kellerman was not a great beauty, she was not at all shy and was enticed into vaudeville and appeared at the London Hippodrome.

Kellerman was such a hit that she went to the U.S. in the spring of 1907. She began her tour with an unforgettable performance in the outdoor swimming pool at White City amusement park in Chicago during a snowstorm. She entertained the crowd by executing a sensational high dive into a glass-enclosed tank, performing various water ballets and spending long periods of time underwater while eating and reading a newspaper. She went on to do 55 shows a week in Chicago for the next three months.

That summer she was booked into the amusement park at Boston's Revere Beach. One morning she made a brief publicity appearance on the beach—and attained immortality. She was wearing her usual vaudeville costume—a boy's black woolen racing suit that clung tightly to her torso and left her legs, arms and neck bare. Some staid women were on the beach that day in their usual cumbersome swimming garb, which included skirts, long-sleeved blouses and stockings. One of the ladies espied the lightly clad Kellerman and called a cop, who collared her for indecent exposure.

Kellerman went to jail and then to court, where she learned that the legal objections to her beachwear were based not on the form-fitting qualities of the suit but on the amount of skin it revealed. So she sewed a pair of black stockings onto the bottom of the suit, attached sleeves and a neckpiece to the top and returned to Revere—as curvaceous and sexy as ever, but with nearly every centimeter of her skin covered to meet the demands of the law. Thus was born the one-piece swimsuit, which allowed women to look like women and made Kellerman the world's first aquatic glamour girl.

She went on to star in several silent movies, including Neptune's Daughter, Queen of the Sea and A Daughter of the Gods. In the last one, Kellerman played a goddess so full of charm that when she fell into a pool of gnashing alligators, they were instantly transformed into swans. She also played the New York Hippodrome in the early 1920s for the gigantic sum of $5,000 a week and appeared on stage with some of the greatest stars of the day—Charlie Chaplin, Al Jolson, Jimmy Durante, Enrico Caruso, Anna Pavlova and Maurice Chevalier.

In 1952, Esther Williams wore 28 different bathing suits as the star of Million Dollar Mermaid, a movie based on Kellerman's life. Kellerman died in 1975 at the age of 87.


In 1913 a local rower asked the Portland (ORE.) Knitting Company to make him a pair of wool trunks to wear while working out on wintry waters in the Northwest. The company's two owners, John Zehntbauer and Carl Jantzen, came up with a knitted garment that was ribbed like a sweater cuff. The rower was delighted, and Zehntbauer and Jantzen decided to manufacture swimsuits of the same material. The suit they designed sold very well for years, despite the fact that it weighed two pounds when dry and eight pounds when wet.

In the early 1920s, not long after Portland Knitting had renamed itself Jantzen Inc., the company created what turned out to be one of the greatest retail-marketing devices of the century—a sticker for car windshields that depicted a girl diving in a red swimsuit. The Jantzen girl was so popular that the company gave out no fewer than 10 million stickers in the '20s. At one point, a number of states, including the relentlessly stick-in-the-mud Massachusetts, refused to grant a driver's license to anyone who carried such a risquè drawing on his windshield. But most of the states had a hard time making the Jantzen rule stick.


Like owners of young thoroughbreds, designer of swimsuits used to search hard and long each year to find new names for almost every model they put on the market, no matter how minor the changes in design might be. In 1954, the reach seemed particularly long for names that would attract customers. That year swimsuits were called Beau Catcher, Double Entendre, Leading Lady, Pretty Foxy, Side Issue, Forecast, Fabulous Fit, Honey Child (designed to maximize small bosoms), Shipshape (designed to minimize large bosoms), Diamond Lil (trimmed with rhinestones and lace), Swimming In Mink (trimmed with fur across the bodice) and Spearfisherman (heavy poplin with a rope belt for carrying a knife to do battle with beasts of the deep).

Perhaps the most provocative name ever coined for a swimsuit was Moonlight Buoy, in 1946. The suit was two pieces of particularly lightweight material—bottom and top together weighed only eight ounces. What made the Moonlight Buoy distinctive was a large cork buckle attached to the the bottoms. If a woman wanted to splash around au naturel, she could tie the top to the cork buckle, which would keep both parts of the suit afloat. LIFE did a photo essay on the Moonlight Buoy and came right out with the naked truth: "The name of the suit, of course, suggests the nocturnal conditions under which nude swimming is most agreeable."


Nothing has made such an impact on human modesty as the bikini. It was designed in 1946 by Louis Rèard, a Frenchman who had trained as a civil engineer before entering his mother's hosiery business in Paris. The name bikini comes from the tiny atoll in the Pacific Ocean that the U.S. pounded to smithereens that same year in a series of atomic tests. Rèard never revealed why he chose the name, leaving swimsuit scholars to ponder whether he had in mind the island's small size, the exotic and revealing garb worn by the women who lived on Bikini before it was bombed or the massive power of an atomic weapon, which, like a woman in a bikini, can devastate everything in its path.

When it was unveiled, the bikini certainly devastated everyone who saw it. No fashion model in Paris would pose in it, so Rèard had to hire a striptease dancer to introduce it. Esther Williams refused to wear one. The bikini was banned in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Belgium, and Sears, Roebuck and Co. once airbrushed out the navel of a model who wore one of the tiny suits in its catalog.

The bikini finally caught on in the 1950s on the French Riviera, thanks in large part to Brigitte Bardot, who was frequently photographed there in bikinis. But American women avoided the suit for years. As late as 1959, Anne Cole, a major U.S. swimsuit designer, said, "It's nothing more than a G-string. It's at the razor's edge of decency." In July of the same year, the New York Post launched a search for bikinis on beaches around New York City and found only a couple. Nevertheless, sales had begun to rise in the U.S., and some deep thinkers, noting that the number of private swimming pools in the country had risen from 2,500 in 1949 to 87,000 in 1959, suggested that thousands of otherwise shy women were buying bikinis to wear in the privacy of their home pools.

By the time Rèard died in 1984 at the age of 87, the bikini made up nearly 20% of all swimsuit sales in the U.S.—far more than for any other model.


Or a few miscellaneous thoughts that have been written and uttered over the years concerning the evolution of the women's swimsuit:

When Rudi Gernreich, who created the topless bathing suit in 1964, was asked why he had designed such a piece of apparel, he said, "It's an abstract idea of what I believed was going to happen."

An anonymous 19th-century poem:

Bathing is a sport
Enjoyed by great and small
In suits of any sort
Though better none at all.

In 1949, LIFE published a story called "The Trouble with the Bikini." One of the photographs was of a 15-year-old girl with an unflattering mark on her tummy. The caption read: "Abdominal scars are revealed. This has caused many women, whose surgeons have left their stomachs looking like old golf balls, to shun the suits." After receiving a letter from the girl's irate father, LIFE printed this embarrassed reply: "LIFE'S apologies. The apparent scar was caused by creases on the negative."

In 1972 swimsuit designer Monika Tilley said of that year's revealing styles, "Bareness is the expression of our times."

In 1974, Gernreich invented the Thong, a Ban-Lon string to be worn in the style of a sumo wrestler's strap. When asked to philosophize about his Thong, he said, "Preferably you should have good-looking buttocks."

TWO ILLUSTRATIONSPHOTOPICTORIAL PARADEBeauties and the beach have long been a winning combination. From left: a pair of Mack Sennett lovelies shimmered in the California sun; Fay Lanphier spread her wings as Miss America of 1925; this modest bikini met a chilly reception in the U.S. in 1952; the "King Tut" suit wowed 'em in the '20s; a swimmer in 1910 risked drowning in her cumbersome costume.THREE PHOTOSCULVER PICTURES[See caption above.]PHOTORELANG/RAPHO GUILLUMETTE[See caption above.]TWO PHOTOSCULVER PICTURESThe bathing machine (top left) was a boon to the modest; Williams (left) portrayed swimsuit pioneer Kellerman; Bardot (right) blazed a trail for the bikini.PHOTOPICTORIAL PARADE[See caption above.]PHOTOCULVER PICTURESThis astonishing outfit was worn by Luvah Roberts in "Nothing But Love," a musical comedy about a young man who rescues a drowning beauty. It opened at New York's Lyric Theater in 1919.PHOTOCULVER PICTURESZayne Mansfield, attired in provocative polka dots, assumed a classic pose for one of the cheesecake publicity shots that were de rigueur for any starlet or love goddess of the '50s and '60s.PHOTOBILL CLAXTON/GLOBE PHOTOSThe topless suit by Gernreich received a lot of publicity—as the designer had hoped it would—but how many beachgoers wore this sensation of the '60s?