From Burlap to Bikinis: A Women’s Swimwear Timeline

Old-fashioned illustration of couple at beach

Did you know full-length women’s swimsuits in the early 1900s were made of wool burlap? Sounds kind of itchy. Fortunately, swimwear and fashion have advanced. Modern fabrics (mostly made with plastics) have helped make swimsuits more versatile, durable, and flattering, inspiring a number of iconic fashion trends along the way. Here are a few key milestones:

Early 1900s

Woman standing at the edge of a lake in bathing suit. This image is originally a negative on glass. It was digitalized with a Nikon D2X and a macro lens.

Over the century’s first three decades, “bathing” suits—designed for sunbathing while strolling on the beach, often made from knitted wool—were slowly replaced with “swimming suits” as swimming gained popularity. Since the suits were now getting wet, manufacturers began experimenting with numerous fabrics, which led to the use of relatively new materials such as plastics, including rayon, acetate, and lastex.

Young Woman with Swimwear in 1935 Black And White

Stretchy plastic materials allowed for better fitting and more comfortable suits that didn’t sag or soak up water like previous swimsuit materials. During this time the swimsuit continually became skimpier with more adventurous cuts, such as low backs or plunging necklines. Swimsuits rapidly moved into the realm of mainstream fashion.


Mother carrying son (2-3) on shoulders, walking on beach, (B&W), portrait

As swimsuits revealed more of the wearer’s body shape, many women relied on plastic fabric compression panels hidden inside swimsuits to flatten the tummy. The plastic fabric had enough stretch to remain comfortable, even while slimming the waist.


The new 'Bikini' swimming costume (in a newsprint-patterned fabric), which caused a sensation at a beauty contest at the Molitor swimming pool in Paris. Designer Louis Reard was unable to find a 'respectable' model for his costume and the job of displaying it went to 19-year-old Micheline Bernardini, a nude dancer from the Casino de Paris. She is holding a small box into which the entire costume can be packed. Celebrated as the first bikini, Luard's design came a few months after a similar two-piece design was produced by French designer Jacques Heim. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The bikini, patented by French designer Louis Reard, first debuted at a Paris poolside fashion show. (Reard’s French models refused to wear it, so he employed an exotic dancer to show it off.) The skimpy new design created quite a stir when widely covered by the press. These suits soon gained popularity along the Mediterranean coast but not in the U.S. due to their scandalous (!) design. In fact, it took about 15 years for bikini-style swimwear to become commonplace on American beaches. The original bikini was fashioned from cotton, but resilient, quick-drying nylon swiftly began replacing it.


Young couple standing in pool, woman waving hand, (B&W), portrait

Following a shortage of certain materials during wartime, waterproof plastic swim caps came roaring back into style in the late 1940s and 1950s, popularized by the famous swimmer and movie star Esther Williams, who wore elaborate, decorative swim caps. Women embraced the colorful toppers, which helped keep hair out of the way while swimming. Trendy styles featured textured plastics or ornate plastic flowers or leaves. But swim caps swiftly lost fashion flavor, and today swim caps are used primarily by competitive swimmers to reduce drag.


Man holding surfboard behind woman

Spandex, or elastane, known for its elasticity, was first used in swimsuits. Spandex replaced thicker, heavier materials due to its lightweight, stretchy, and quick-drying qualities. By the mid 1960s, most swimsuits were made of nylon, spandex, or a combination on the two.

Meanwhile, the bikini finally hit American shores with a bang. The popular 1962 James Bond movie “Dr. No” featured Ursula Andress in a revealing bikini, and in 1964 the first Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue hit newsstands with a white bikini on the cover, which helped launch the modern bikini into the mainstream.


Swimmer on pool edge

New blends of plastic fabrics meant swimsuits and other athletic wear were more comfortable and secure than ever, a development particularly welcomed by female competitive athletes, from swimmers to gymnasts. Sleeker style innovations helped athletes achieve faster speeds in the pool, too. And for less demanding swim styles, the versatility of plastic fabrics inspired trendy new design elements like mesh inserts or cutouts.


Attractive brunette woman in bikini

Once reserved for insulated wetsuits, neoprene plastic became a popular material for the ’80s beach look. Designer Robin Piccone created a fashion frenzy with a line of neoprene swimwear for Body Glove®. The vividly bright maillots, monokinis, and bikinis became the decade’s summer chic.


A lifeguard stands on shore watching the ocean

With the now-iconic show Baywatch dominating the airwaves, sporty, one-piece styles were a dominant trend. The ’90s are also known for the introduction of the one-piece’s close cousin, the tankini. The innovative and versatile two-piece offers the freedom of a bikini but provides the modesty of a one-piece suit.


American butterfly style swimmer close-up

While skimpy string bikinis were trending on runways, “space-age” suits began to emerge in the world of competitive swimming. Revolutionary swimwear from Speedo® made with high-tech plastic fabrics helped athletes reduce drag and increase performance. Media outlets reported that during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, swimmers wearing the suit won 92 percent of all medals.


Girl in a bikini drinking water

In the 21st century, new technologies helped those who want a tan all over. The innovative “tan-through” swimsuit is made with the patented synthetic, stretchy yarn that has thousands of microscopic holes, which lets most UV rays through for a more consistent tan. The tan-through technology is so effective that manufacturers advise wearers to apply sunscreen all over to protect their skin under the suit.

As the availability of high-quality recycled plastics increased, many manufacturers began fashioning swimwear out of used plastics, including everyday beverage bottles that are recycled into soft, durable, versatile fabrics.


Futuristic swimwear girl standing in silver reflective room.

What does the future hold? Who knows? But according to one NYU professor, the future of clothing—including swimwear—may be all about marrying fashion and technology.

Check out the history of recycling timeline.