1930s Mens And Womens Bathing Suits

A sarong, also known as a pareo, is a free-fitting garment that, when popularized in the West, was worn by women primarily as a skirt or a dress. It does not, however, have clearly designated sleeves, buttonholes, or waistline. A sarong is instead a large, rectangular piece of cloth that is wrapped around the body and tied in place. Sarongs are multicolored and feature an endless array of patterns. When they became popular in the mid-1930s they suggested an exotic, friendly allure.

Sarongs have been prevalent in Asian cultures for centuries, where they were worn by both men and women, particularly on Pacific Ocean islands and in the Malay Archipelago, off the southeast coast of Asia. The striking patterns and colors on traditional sarongs were produced by a method known as batik, a slow and complex process of dying that involves covering the areas of the cloth

Women Dressed Swimsuit And Sarong

A woman wearing a modern-day sarong tied over her swimsuit.

Reproduced by permission of © Royalty-Free/CORBIS.

A woman wearing a modern-day sarong tied over her swimsuit.

Reproduced by permission of © Royalty-Free/CORBIS.

that are not to be colored with melted wax. The cloth is exposed to the dye or dyes, and then the wax is removed by placing it in boiling water. A sarong made by this two-thousand-year-old process may take well over a year to produce.

In the United States sarongs were popularized in the movies, especially by the popular actress Dorothy Lamour (1914-1996), who won stardom in the mid-1930s and remained a top screen personality throughout the 1940s, often cast as an exotic, sarong-clad island woman. Lamour's star-making role was in The Jungle Princess (1936), in which she played Ulah, an exot-ically beautiful female who grew up alone in the wilds of Malaysia. Lamour actually wore a sarong only in a fraction of her future films, yet her career was forever linked to the garment.

Sarongs were made of cotton or silk and, later, rayon. In addition to skirts and dresses, they have been worn as jackets, sashes, shawls, and head coverings. Sarongs can be folded several different ways and tied with knots before being placed on, over, or around the body. Sarongs not only have been used to cover the body. They also have made colorful curtains, window shades, tablecloths, beach or pool towels, wall hangings, and even bandanas for dogs. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries they found increased popularity as a cover worn over swimsuits.


Lamour, Dorothy, as told to Dick McInnes. My Side of the Road. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980.

Yarwood, Doreen. The Encyclopedia of World Costume. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.


Long used to describe socks or any covering for the feet, the term "stockings" has come to refer to the sheer foot and leg coverings worn mainly by women. Once made of thick cotton or wool, stockings were mostly hidden under long skirts and only seen in provocative glimpses. Since the 1920s, however, women's skirt lengths have remained well above the ankle, and sheer, colored, embroidered, or patterned stockings have become a highly visible fashion accessory. Since the beginning of the 1940s most stockings have been made from nylon.

Knitted stockings have been commonly available since an English clergyman named William Lee (c. 1550-1610) invented a knitting machine in 1589. Though women had worn plain cotton or wool stocking for centuries, it took the rising hemlines of the 1920s to make stockings fashionable. Young women wearing their skirts at knee length wanted to show off their legs in pretty stockings. Soon embroidered cotton stockings appeared, but these became baggy around the knees after a few wearings. Even rayon, a new sheer fabric invented in Germany in 1915, had the same problem. Stockings made of silk held their shape better and soon became quite popular, though they were expensive. Manufacturers began to make stockings in a variety of flesh colors, and soon legs appeared almost bare, except for the seam that ran up the back. Silk stockings were held up by garters, elastic circles that fit tightly around each leg, or garter belts, elastic bands that went around the waist with several fasteners that hung down to secure the stockings.

Women liked silk stockings, but they were easily torn, so in the late 1930s scientists at the DuPont Company in Delaware be

Hung Woman
A woman modeling stockings held up with garters. Reproduced by permission of © Hulton-Deutsch Collectmn/CORBIS.

gan experimenting to create a stronger fabric. In the lab they called the result Polymer 6.6, and DuPont claimed that it was almost indestructible. They intended the fabric to be used for women's stockings, and they introduced it at the 1939 New York World's Fair, displayed as a giant stocking on a giant replica of a woman's leg. They named the new fabric nylon after New York, and stores quickly sold out of the new stockings. The first year that nylon stockings were available, women in the United States bought sixty-four million pairs. By 1941 20 percent of all stockings produced in the United States were made of nylon.

The new nylon stockings, or nylons as they came to be called, were very popular with women because they were comfortable, inexpensive, and attractive. In only a few years, however, World War II (1939—45) had started, and nylon was needed for the war. The new fabric was needed to make tents and parachutes and was no longer available for women's accessories. During the war years it was not uncommon for women to draw a black line down the back of their bare legs so that it would appear as if they were wearing stockings. Some women even used makeup to color their legs darker. When nylons appeared in stores again after the war, women lined up by the thousands to buy them.

By the early 1960s circular knitting machines could create seamless tubes of fabric to make nylon stockings without a back seam, and by the late 1960s very short hemlines had popularized sheer tights called "panty hose," which eliminated the cumbersome garter belt. By the last decades of the twentieth century, most women wore pantyhose or trousers with socks or knee-high stockings. Traditional stockings and garter belts have become rare but are still considered elegant and sexy by many.


Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1982.

[See also Volume 5, 1961-79: Pantyhose]

Swim Trunks for Men rim trunks, shorts designed to be worn by men while swimming, came into fashion during the mid-1930s. Trunks replaced much bulkier types of swimwear, which covered the entire torso and had often been heavy and hot. Because many men wanted to visit beaches and pools in comfort and wanted ease and freedom of movement in their swimming clothes, they protested the bulky outfits that had been legally required for swimming.

The earliest swimmers probably wore nothing at all in the water. Through the ages, however, various cultures have had different customs of modesty and have imposed restrictions upon swimming and swimwear accordingly. During the nineteenth century people grew very modest about exposing the body and developed special bathing costumes. Though some English journalists spoke out against the new fashion, stating that wearing clothes while swimming was unsanitary, the extreme modesty of the time won out, and swimmers in Europe and the United States began wearing elaborate swimming costumes. An early men's bathing suit, designed by the Jantzen company in the 1880s, weighed nine pounds.

By the early 1900s men's bathing suits had become more streamlined but still covered much of the body. In 1916 beaches on Chicago's Lake Michigan required men's bathing costumes to be cut no lower on the chest than the armpits. Bathing suit bottoms had to have a "skirt effect" or a long shirt had to be worn over the suit. The bot

1930s Bathing Suit
In the mid-1930s swim trunks came to replace the bulky, restrictive swimwear men were required to wear. Reproduced by permission of AP/Wide World Photos.

toms themselves could be no more than four inches above the knee. A possible alternative was flannel knee pants with a belt and fly front worn with a vest. Failure to obey these rules could result in arrest for indecent exposure.

Such modest styles began to change during the 1930s. The invention of a rubberized thread called lycra made a new type of snug-fitting bathing suit possible, and a "nude look" came into fashion on beaches everywhere, with tight, one-piece suits that looked glamorous and made swimming easier. However, men still wanted to swim and relax on beaches bare-chested. In 1933 a men's suit called "the topper" was introduced with a removable tank top that allowed daring men to expose their chests when they wished. That same year the BVD company, which made men's underwear, introduced a line of men's swimwear designed by Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weismuller (1904-1984). The new BVD suit was a tight-fitting one piece with a top made of a series of thin straps that exposed much of the chest, while still remaining within the law.

In the summer of 1936 a male "no shirt movement" led many men to protest the chest-covering requirements. Although topless men were banned from beaches from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Galveston, Texas, the men eventually swayed the legislature, and by 1937 it was legal for men to appear in public wearing only swim trunks. Since that time men's swimwear styles have changed little. Into the twenty-first century swim trunks have been either loose-fitting shorts in a "boxer" style or the tighter fitting "brief' style.


Lenacek, Lena. Making Waves: Swimsuits and the Undressing of America. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1989.

Martin, Richard. Splash!: A History of Swimwear. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.

[See also Volume 3, Nineteenth Century: Bathing Costumes; Volume 4, 1919-29: Swimwear]

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