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Vintage Swimsuits

Updated on May 10, 2012

The swimsuit has come a long way since the neck to knee woollen knit costumes our great grandmothers had to wear to the beach, a mere hundred years or so ago. Of course in those days a bare thigh would have caused a riot and any woman publicly revealing such a thing would likely have been locked up for obscenity. What a contrast to the skimpy, barely-there G-string swimsuits seen on the beach and by the poolside today.

Swimsuits began getting daring in the 1920s and have been shrinking ever since; many of today's togs could fit inside a cigarette packet. There's freedom now to wear whatever you like and on some beaches it's okay to wear nothiing at all!

Luminous fifites one-piece
Luminous fifites one-piece

40's and 50's Swimsuits

In fashion, what goes around comes around again and swimsuits are no exception. We haven't quite got back to neck to knee but there is a trend toward those stunning one and two piece bathing suits from the 40s' and 50's. Check out the flattering lines on the bright yellow costume at right -they elongate the body and the quality fabric holds everything in the right place.For those of us with less than perfect firmness, that's got to be a bonus.

How sexy too, is Marilyn Monroe's 1950s pure white figure hugging all in one suit? Or what about the black Babygirl version, complete with diamonte clip on the hip? That's so swank it's almost a cocktail dress.

Florida beauty in a 50s strapless suit with matching beach wrap
Florida beauty in a 50s strapless suit with matching beach wrap
Marilyn's trademark swimsuit
Marilyn's trademark swimsuit
Babygirl Bathers with diamente hip brooch
Babygirl Bathers with diamente hip brooch
!948 vintage swimsuite catalogue. Image from bernicebobsherhair.blogspot
!948 vintage swimsuite catalogue. Image from bernicebobsherhair.blogspot
Gene Tierney in leopard print
Gene Tierney in leopard print

Style Features

Bikinis date back to just after WWII, although they weren't like the tiny costumes we know today. Revealing bikinis didn't come in until the 1960s. In the 1940s and 50's, two pieces were usually high enough to cover the navel, as it wasn't considered 'proper' to expose this area of flesh.

In the 50's swimsuits also became a little sexier, offering more structure and support in much the same way as underwear. You could now buy a suit to 'prop you up' and hold in those important areas. This opened the way for strapless and halter-neck suits. The criss cross back strap, which was popular in the 40's could still be found but there was now more variety.

The 50's saw the development of the padded bra swimsuit which gave the illusion of having more flesh in the right areas than you actually did but took longer to dry when you came out the water.


Spandex and lycra wasn't invented until 1958, so the fabric in early suits was thicker and less stretchy than what we have today, though a vast uimprovement on the heavy woollen suits of the early part of the century. Lastex, an elastic, two-way stretch textile made from Latex was introduced in the 1920s and in 1938 Dupont had come up with the revolutionary, all synthetic fibre...nylon, which allowed for more figure-hugging in swimsuits than before. Lined cotton was also used.

Another feature of vintage swimwear is the inclusion of the 'modesty panel' - a discreet fold of material that covered the lower front area and held you in at the same time.. Some swimsuits designs of the era included little skirts and flounces, like little dresses, especially in the 40's and it wasn't uncommon or bows, brooches, belts, buttons and other embellishments to make an appearance.

Vintage Swimsuit Parade

Adorable. Photo from
Adorable. Photo from

Long Bodies

An obvious feature of the fifties style swimsuits is the low leg cut, which emphasises body length, rather than leg length. Also great for minimizing cellulite exposure.

Although shorter in length than they had been in prevous decades, it wasn't until the 60's. 70's and beyond that the super-high cut styles came into vogue. In fact some modern suits have got so short that they're really not much more than a piece of string. Since they can't get any shorter and smaller the only place to go for change is the stylish vintage costumes of the 50's.

1950's Jantzen Catalogue
1950's Jantzen Catalogue
A very young Doris Day in a gorgeous two piece swimsuit circa late forties/early fifties
A very young Doris Day in a gorgeous two piece swimsuit circa late forties/early fifties


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