The Modern Swimsuit

After World War I, several factors combined to produce a radical change in swimwear. Women had achieved new levels of independence during the war, and fashions began to allow them more freedom of movement. Interest in active sports of all kinds increased during the 1920s, and sportswear achieved new importance in fashion. Swimming also gained in popularity due to an increase in the number of municipal swimming pools, and the publicity given to such celebrities as Gertrude Ederle, who in 1926 became the first woman to swim the English Channel. Form-fitting knitted wool tank suits, almost identical to those worn by men, were promoted as active swimwear for the modern woman, and soon became the dominant style. At the same time, beach resorts on the Riviera or at Palm Beach became an important part of the fashionable calendar, and beach fashions assumed new significance in society wardrobes. Paris couturiers such as Jean Patou, Jeanne Lanvin, and Elsa Schiaparelli used crisply detailed knit suits—both two-piece suits of tunic and trunks and one-piece suits (known as maillots)—as a canvas for geometric designs in bold, contrasting colors. Spending long leisurely days at the beach also required an extensive on-shore wardrobe, including sunsuits and sunbathing dresses, beach coats and capes, bathing shoes and sandals, close-fitting hats for swimming and wide-brimmed hats for shade, colorful beach umbrellas, beach pajamas (very popular in the late 1920s) and, to hold it all, large canvas beach bags.

By the early 1930s, the growing popularity of sunbathing inspired suits with very low-cut "evening-gown" backs, suits with removable straps for sunning, and suits with large cutouts at the sides and back. The one-piece maillot, with or without a vestigial skirt or skirt front (called a "modesty panel"), was still the most common style, but two-piece suits, consisting of a high-waisted skirt or trunks and a brassiere or halter top, were introduced early in the decade. These sometimes coordinated with matching separates to convert into sundresses or playsuits, which succeeded beach pajamas as the most fashionable form of on-shore beachwear. So-called dressmaker suits were another popular style; these were skirted suits with attached trunks, cut like dresses and usually made of printed or textured woven fabrics (sometimes with an elastic liner).

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