The 1920s was a pivotal decade for women’s fashion, bringing radical changes to how women dressed and presented themselves.
Swimwear was no exception, undergoing dramatic shifts that took it from the restrictive one-piece suits of the 1900s to the daring and liberating designs of the “Roaring Twenties”.
In this article, we’ll explore the evolution of women’s swimwear in the 1920s, looking at the key styles and trends that defined the era.
We’ll see how swimsuits reflected the changing social attitudes of the time, becoming less about modesty and more about comfort, movement and showing off the body.
From daring one-piece maillots to elegant chemises, practical swimming costumes to stylish sunning suits, we’ll cover all the iconic looks that allowed women to embrace new freedoms at the beach and poolside.
What did bathing suits in the 1960s look like?
The voluminous layers and corseted shapes that restricted women’s bodies in previous decades were swept away in the 1920s.
Swimsuits became lighter, shorter and more form-fitting, allowing for ease of movement. This was aided by the introduction of new elasticized fabrics like Lastex yarns which added stretch and flexibility.
Gone were the bloomers and tunics of the 1900s, replaced by sleek maillots cut high on the leg. Bathing costumes increasingly resembled the chemises and teddies worn as lingerie, with halternecks, bare backs and plunging necklines.
Prints and color blocked panels broke up plain black wool costumes.
The embryonic bikini also emerged, scandalizing onlookers with its bare midriff and sparse triangles held together with string.
But despite a few daring early adopters, the leggy one-piece swimsuit remained the norm. Hemlines rose steadily as the decade progressed, until by the end of the 1920s suits with thigh-skimming skirts were standard.
Let’s look in more detail at how swimming attire for women evolved over the course of this groundbreaking decade.
Early 1920s Swimsuit Styles
The early part of the decade saw swimwear continuing styles established in the late 1910s. One-piece wool maillots predominated, still covering the body from neck to knees. But the restrictive corseting and skirts of previous decades were gone. In their place were looser, lighter garments that allowed freedom of movement.
Closer Fitting Silhouettes
Suits were cut closer to the body, doing away with the blouson tops and skirts of older styles. Necklines plunged lower, both front and back, and bare shoulders became fashionable for the first time. Armholes were enlarged to expose more of the arms.
Leg openings rode higher on the thigh, finishing just below the knee rather than at mid-calf. Tanks suits, with broader shoulder straps instead of sleeves, emerged as a sportier alternative to traditional suits.
Plain black wool was enlivened with colorful geometric appliques and striking Art Deco inspired prints. Favored motifs included zigzags, chevrons, and abstract floral designs. Large leaf shapes and Egyptian inspired motifs were also popular.
Stripes and color blocking created graphic patterns, with blocks of contrasting color punctuating clear fields of black, navy or dark brown. Some of the boldest looks featured large, colorful side panels running from armpit to hem.
New Elastic Fabrics
Wool jersey remained the fabric of choice, but the introduction of Lastex rayon yarns brought stretch and flexibility to swimwear. Knitted tricot fabrics also became popular. These new textiles allowed a closer, unrestricted fit through the body and limbs.
The Swimming Costume
While still conservative by today’s standards, these sleeker silhouettes represented a daring new look for women used to voluminous 19th century bathing dresses. The new styles were promoted as “swimming costumes” – garments that enabled sport and recreation, rather than merely preserving modesty.
Mid 1920s Swimwear Styles
By the mid-point of the decade, swimming attire was undergoing even more radical transformations. One-piece suits abbreviated further, with higher leg openings, low backs and plunging necklines. New styles like the bare-back tank suit caused a sensation.
The influence of lingerie was clear, as bathing suits began to resemble camisoles, teddies and negligees. Eveningwear also inspired looks, with elegant knee-length chemise gowns for poolside glamour.
The “Bold Look” Suit
Two piece suits were introduced, still modest by modern standards but shocking at the time. Bikini precursors like the “double torso” and “broadview” bared the midriff for sun tanning, preserving modesty with a panel of fabric across the hips.
The leg was on full display in the peekaboo suit, with window cutouts at hip, knee or mid-thigh. Suit legs retracted above the knee, while necklines plummeted. Large cutouts exposed the upper back, for the daring “bold look”.
Bare Back Styles
Backless swimwear caused a sensation, led by the controversial bare-back tank suit. This had narrow straps across an open back, secured at the waist or hip.
Variations included cross-back and open back one-piece styles, cut away across the shoulder blades. Halter neck and midriff baring looks added to the bare-back craze.
Floating chemise gowns based on silk and satin lingerie took poolside glamour to new heights. Slender and elegant, they were vision of luxury with draped cowl necks and tiered, asymmetric hems.
Teddy style suits had Bodices cut like silk camisoles, while French maillots sported bra-style cups. All echoed the unstructured shapes and delicate fabrics of undergarments.
On the practical side, streamlined tank suits became a sporty favorite for their active fit. Based on men’s sleeveless swimming tops, these had broad shoulder straps and scooped armholes.
Higher cut legs derived from competition swimsuits gave them a modern feel. Variations included racing back styles and belted tanks suits for casual beachwear.
Late 1920s Swimwear Styles
By the end of the 1920s, swimming attire was shorter, tighter and more revealing than ever. The flat-chested flapper look favored slim, straight lines with a dropped waist. Although conservatism lingered, the foundations were laid for the body-baring sensuality of 1930s swimwear.
Hemlines had been rising steadily throughout the decade. Now suits with thigh length skirts were normal, showcasing the legs to just below the hip. Plunging necklines, cutaway backs and bare midriffs pushed boundaries further.
In 1926, Annette Kellerman – professional swimmer turned Hollywood starlet – caused a sensation in a sleeveless suit cut high on the thigh. Although she was arrested for indecency, her attire soon became the norm. By 1929, most suits had abbreviated to upper thigh length.
Low-slung waistlines and wide, diagonal necklines that exposed the shoulders became signatures of the late 1920s swimsuit. Suit legs retracted to hip-height at their highest; many ended at mid-thigh, especially styles for sport.
Slim, straight lines were accentuated with binding and trim details. Belts cinched waists, while binding at the neckline, armholes and leg openings reinforced the streamlined shape.
Strapless and halter neck suits emphasized bare shoulders, as did racer-back styles with crisscrossed back straps. Plunging V necks and scoop backs completed the smooth, fitted look.
Bold Colors and Prints
Black remained a classic, but jewel-bright tones came into vogue. Sapphire blue, emerald green and ruby red brought new drama. Large botanical and abstract prints provided graphic impact.
Nautical themes like anchors and sailing flags appeared frequently, alongside Art Deco designs. Checks and stripes in contrast colors created striking color block effects.
Accessories and Beauty Trends
Swimsuits were just part of the story when it came to beach attire in the 1920s. Accessories like beach pyjamas, rolled swim shoes and cloche bathing caps completed the fashionable look. Let’s take a closer look at some key trends:
Inspired by Asian styles, these were lightweight trousers and overshirts worn poolside or for promenading along the boardwalk. Often in coordinating print fabrics, pyjamas provided coverups while creating an exotic mood.
Canvas slip-on shoes with rubber soles allowed for easy movement in the sand. Styles with enclosed heels and toes offered more protection in the surf. Dark prints or solid colors complemented most swimsuits.
Rubber caps in floral prints and polka dots added playful flair. Cloche styles with chin straps framed the face like a fashionable hat. Caps helped secure hair, but also prevented sea water damage to expensive permanent waves.
Pale skin was out – a sun-kissed glow was in. Swimsuits got skimpier to maximize tanning potential. Oiled skin and reflective props like mirrors helped intensify UV exposure. Against doctors’ advice, a deep tan became a sign of health and leisure-class living.
Fashionable beach makeup was minimal. Flesh-toned powder evened skin, while subtle lip color kept the focus on eyes. Dramatic kohl liner and mascara created a sultry “bedroom eye”. Fake eyelashes, seen as vulgar before, now added glamour.
The Changing Tides of Swimwear
The swimsuits of the 1920s didn’t just transform how women dressed at the beach. They reflected a profound shift in social attitudes and female body image. A few key factors drove these changes:
The Roaring Twenties
Prosperity and social revolt fueled this giddy decade of rule-breaking. Young women claimed new freedoms and struggled against Victorian conceptions of femininity. Swimwear evolved hand-in-hand with these shifts.
As movies grew popular, stars like Josephine Baker and Annette Kellerman made waves sporting daring swimsuits on-screen and off. Their scandalous styles filtered down to everyday beachgoers wanting Hollywood glamour.
The Flat-Chested Flapper
The new straight-lined fashions de-emphasized the bust and waist. Swimsuits followed suit, doing away with constructed tops and corsets. Binding gave boyish flat-chested shapes while bare skin celebrated active bodies.
The Sun Worship Trend
Doctors previously warned against sun exposure, but getting a suntan now proved one was wealthy enough to vacation. Swimsuits shrank to reveal more skin to the sun, initiating an endless quest for the perfect tan.
Synthetic fabrics removed many of the functional constraints of wool swimwear. Stretchy fabrics improved fit and freedom of motion. Lighter-weight textiles enabled smaller, closer-fitting suits and bra-style tops.
These factors intertwined to completely transform swimsuit style and culture. The relatively modest suits of the early 1920s opened the floodgates to the outrageously revealing designs that would soon come. Although still risque by their standards, the swimsuits of the 1920s marked only the beginning of modern bathing attire and beach culture. The bikini was just around the corner.
Did You Know? Fascinating Facts About 1920s Swimwear
The swimsuits of the 1920s were revolutionary, but there’s always more beneath the surface. Here are some fascinating tidbits about swimwear in this iconic era:
- Annette Kellerman was arrested for indecent exposure in 1907 for wearing a sleeveless one-piece suit that exposed her thighs and most of her arms. This catalyzed swimsuit reform.
- Lastex, a type of elasticized rayon, was invented in 1925. This allowed stretch fabrics to be woven into swimming costumes for the first time.
- Early two-piece swimsuits had a gap at the midriff to allow women to get suntans without showing too much skin. Tan skin was a status symbol.
- Actresses helped drive swimsuit fashion by wearing scandalous suits in publicity photos and early movies. Films like Million Dollar Mermaid made a splash.
- The word “swimsuit” replaced “bathing costume” as swimwear evolved for leisure beyond sea bathing for health pursuits.
- The first Miss America contest was held in 1921, judged in “bathing attire”. The winner wore a close-fitting one-piece dark blue suit with a matching cape.
- Lastex allowed the first topless suits and bikini precursors in the 1920s. These remained rare novelties until after World War 2.
- 1920s health manuals discouraged swimming for women, warning it could harm “female organs”. Doctors also cautioned women to swim only in gender-segregated spaces.
- Suntanning caught on despite doctors warning it could cause skin cancer. A suntan was newly prized as a sign of leisure and freedom from having to work indoors.
Swimwear Fabric & Technology Advancements in 1920s
The swimsuit fabrics and techniques used in the 1920s built the foundations for the versatile, body-hugging designs to come. Some key developments included:
Wool jersey and tricot knits conformed closely to the body compared to woven materials. Their stretchy properties improved freedom of movement in the water.
This new semi-synthetic fiber worked well for swimwear when blended with wool. Rayon allowed colorful dyes and prints not easily achieved with wool.
Rubber woven into rayon gave Lastex elasticity and stretch. This let suits mold to the body shape without sagging. Lastex was a precursor to spandex and elastic.
Bias-cut binding at the edges shaped and stabilized revealing new suit silhouettes. Binding also created flattering lines and a sporty, streamlined look.
Wider shoulder straps evolved from the thick bands on men’s tank tops. These supported and stabilized bodices, allowing soft cup shapes without stiff boning.
Cut in rings, circle skirts maximized fullness in less fabric. This brought fluid movement and a mini skirt-like flutter to abbreviated hemlines.
Advances in brassiere cups and elastic chest bands influenced necklines. Plunging V’s and bandeau tops mimicked lingerie for figure molding appeal.
Were There Swimsuits for Men?
Women’s swimming attire evolved in dramatic ways during the 1920s, but men’s swimwear remained relatively stable. The iconic men’s swimsuits style we still recognize today took shape around this time.
Men wore wool one-piece tank suits that extended from above the knee to the shoulders. Based on sleeveless undershirts, these provided full chest and torso coverage. Shoulder straps were wide set for freedom of movement. Legs were often cut slightly fuller than today’s briefs.
Dark solid colors like black, navy and maroon predominated. Some tanks had contrasting stripe trim at the neckline and sides. On more casual suits, shirts and shorts were worn on top for modesty when not in swimming.
Undergarments were still required, usually a snug fitting athletic supporter underneath. Rubber swim caps kept hair dry but were not as heavily decorated as women’s caps. And while women wore stockings with their swimsuits, men went bare-legged.
Just like with female fashion, men’s swimwear shrank throughout the century. But the evolution was more gradual. By the end of the 1920s, the basic look of men’s swimwear was largely established. Changes since have tweaked proportions, colors and fabrics rather than radically transforming the overall style.
How Did Swimsuits Change After the 1920s?
The iconic knitted maillot born in the 1920s would influence women’s swimwear for decades to follow. But changing social norms and lifestyles continued opening up new avenues of swimsuit style. Some key milestones included:
- Two piece swimsuits caught on, some with bare midriffs or cutouts
- Swimsuits got even skimpier and more figure-hugging
- Accessories like beach pajamas and shrugs remained popular
- Movie stars made waves wearing provocative swimsuits on-screen
- Severe wartime shortages limited swimsuit fabric and embellishments
- Bare midriffs and lingerie styles fell from favor as hemlines dropped
- Sturdy cottons and patriotic colors and motifs dominated
- Brigitte Bardot “bikini” shocked in 1946, but didn’t catch on yet
- Strapless sweetheart tops and lower-cut legs gained popularity
- Swimwear used more synthetic fabrics like nylon and spandex
- Bikinis became mainstream, though still considered risque
- Pin-up and Hollywood glamour impacted swimsuit styles
- Retro high-waisted bottoms and halter tops were favorites
- Novelty prints like polka dots, florals and tropical motifs were trendy
- Swimdress styles provided more coverage for modesty
- Figure-enhancing padding and underwire appeared in swimsuit tops
- Maillots got more athletic-inspired details like contrast piping
- Shoulder baring strapless tops or racerback suits were on-trend
The post-war period saw a revival of glamorous, feminine swimwear as wartime austerity lifted. Strapless tops paid homage to pin-up girls, while lower legs and bare midriffs nod to Hollywood starlets. This exciting decade set the stage for the radical shifts in beach fashion soon to come.
- The bikini finally gained widespread acceptance
- Minimal string bikinis left little to the imagination
- Bold prints and psychedelic patterns came into fashion
- Necklines plunged dangerously low, and legs cut high on the hip
- Maillots got sleeker and more sporty with racing-style details
- Stretch nylon and Lycra replaced wool as standard fabrics
- Bikinis shrank further with tiny triangles and thin strings
- One-piece suits got high-cut legs inspired by Olympic swimwear
- Metallic fabrics, wild prints, lace-ups and hardware details added flair
- Athleisure influence saw active swimwear with racerbacks and contrast piping
- Thong bikinis emerged, taking scant coverage to new extremes
- Neon colors, wild prints, shimmery fabrics added punk spirit
- Aerobics craze impacted swimwear with cutouts and strappy details
- High-waisted legs and retro pin-up style tops nodded to 1940s style
- Minimalist unpadded tops and low-slung bottoms were on-trend
- Sporty one-piece suits had higher-cut legs and contrast side panels
- Animal prints, metallics and iridescent fabrics added edge
- The “Baywatch” red one-piece swimsuit became iconic
2000s to Today
- String bikinis sink to barely-there proportions
- One-pieces get plunging lines and high-cut legs
- Retro influences see high-waisted bottoms make a comeback
- Athletic looks gain ground with contrast colorblocking
- Eco-friendly fabrics emerge as swimmers become more sustainability minded
How To Wear 1920s Style Swimwear Today
With their daring lines and figure-hugging appeal, 1920s style suits feel surprisingly modern and sexy.
Some tips for rocking 1920s swimwear inspiration today:
- Look for retro halterneck, cowl neck and backless one-piece suits
- High-cut legs paired with low backs or fronts create a vintage effect
- Binding trim adds flattering definition to slim silhouettes
- Try tops with triangle cups, bandeau cuts or strapless sweetheart shapes
- Opt for jewel tones, graphic black-and-white or abstract prints
- Sport a cute vintage-style bathing cap for waves or protection
- Adorn with beaded jewelry, cat-eye sunnies and strappy wedges
- Work a peachy sun-kissed glow with coral lips and defined brows
- Make it modern with an on-trend sheer black coverup
With high-waisted bottoms coming back around, elements of 1920s swimwear style feel fresher than ever. Give your swim look a dose of timeless glamour by taking inspiration from these iconic vintage suits!
Other questions about swimwear in the 1920s
We’ve covered all the major trends and styles when it comes to women’s swimwear in the 1920s. Here are answers to some common questions about swimsuits in this remarkable decade:
Were bikinis invented in the 1920s?
While early two piece swimsuits did exist, the first official “bikini” wasn’t introduced until 1946 by French designer Louis Réard. He named it after the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific where atomic bomb testing took place that year.
Scandalously skimpy two piece swimsuits in the 1920s paved the way by getting women used to showing more skin at the beach. But most women wouldn’t wear a true bikini until the 1960s sexual revolution.
What fabrics were 1920s swimsuits made of?
Wool jersey was the most common swimsuit fabric, sometimes blended with rayon or silk. Newly developed stretchy knits like tricot and PowerNet nylon also emerged later in the decade.
Rubber yarns like Lastex woven into fabrics provided more stretch and flexibility. But 100% wool suits remained popular for their warmth and durability in the water.
Could women go swimming in public in the 1920s?
Swimming was controversial for women, seen as unladylike and even a health hazard. Doctors warned against swimming during menstruation. Municipal pools were largely male-only.
But recreational swimming gradually became more accepted. Women-only beach clubs, home pools, and swimsuit designs allowing mobility helped swimming catch on as a sport and hobby.
How much did a swimsuit cost in the 1920s?
A wool jersey swimsuit in 1925 cost around $6-10, around $90-150 in today’s money. More lavish suits with special details and silk linings could range from $10-25, or $150-$375 today.
For working women earning $20-25 a week on average, even a basic swimsuit represented quite an investment. Off-the-rack suits at department stores brought prices down later in the decade.
How did swimsuits evolve in the 1930s?
The 1930s continued the trend towards ever-smaller and more revealing swimsuits. By the end of the decade the first modern bikinis emerged.
Necklines plunged, legs got higher, and bare backs and midriffs became common. Two piece suits with detachable modesty panels or skirt covers helped ease their acceptance.
New elastic fabrics improved fit, while motifs were inspired by locales like Hawaii, Mexico and the South Pacific.
The Jazz Age was a turning point for women’s swimwear.
Out went the restrictive heavy wool dresses of the past and in came body-baring maillots and daring two-pieces. Higher hemlines, plunging necklines and bare skin celebrated women’s bodies rather than hiding them away.
Driven by social and cultural revolts, swimsuits got lighter, brighter and infinitely more comfortable. Stretch fabrics improved ease of movement in the water, while dropped waists and bandeau tops mimicked lingerie for figure-hugging allure.
Although still scandalous by today’s standards, 1920s swimsuits marked the transition into the flesh-flashing designs to come. They mirrored the changing position of women who were claiming new freedoms and independence as the modern world dawned.
So next time you suit up for a day at the beach or pool, spare a thought for the boundary breaking women of the 1920s! Their rebellious swimming costumes paved the way for the itsy bitsy bikinis and scanty speedos we enjoy today.