Beach-style – Swimsuit fashion from bathing costumes to bikinis

In our current exhibition, we are going to visit the lidos of the past century and find out how bathing suits became smaller and shorter. What beach fashion did our parents and grandparents follow? Who popularized the bikini that was regarded as a taboo initially? How did the atomic bomb and a strip dancer influence the swimsuit fashion? And how was it connected to James Bond and Star Wars? Our exhibition will give you the answers.

Életkép fürdőzőkkel - Balatoni Múzeum, CC BY-NC-NDBaths and sports life were parts of the ancient Greek and Roman cultures and the people of those times were not famous for their prudery. Mainly for doing sports ladies wore two-piece suits similar to bikinis, covering that needed to be covered. After the spread of Christianity, the period of pudicity came, thus public bathing was not too popular either. In Hungary there were periods when baths became fashionable, for example during the Renaissance or the Ottoman occupation. The bathing culture was not part of common people’s lives until the 18th century, when a change came about and it started prospering as of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Családi csoportkép a balatonalmádi strandon - Terleczky József, CC BY-NC-NDBathing costumes were not really different from the street wear in the 19th century as the smock-like creations covered women’s whole bodies. They preferred fabrics that did not become translucent when they got wet, for example linen or calico. Weights were sewn in the hems of bathing costumes preventing their unpleasant floating up on the water. In the following century, ladies went swimming in knee-length coveralls that had bathing-stockings as well in order to cover legs. Men enjoyed water-sports in long-sleeved and knee-length cotton maillots. Wooden bathing machines were made, which shows the modesty of the Victorian Age. Bathers could enter these huts and then they were hauled into the water without being watched in bathing suit by others.

Levelezőlap, Stockholm, olimpiai játékok (1912) - Gróf Esterházy Károly Múzeum, CC BY-NC-NDLater at the beginning of the 20th century, women’s emancipation had its impact on women’s clothes and – slowly but surely – on bathing suit shortening. Besides that, swimming became a competitive sport that required more comfortable and practical pieces. Despite that in 1907 swimmer Annette Kellermann posing in a too-tight swimsuit was arrested for transgressing standards of public decency. A legendary photo remained of the lady in slinky bathing suit. The bathing costumes of the 1920s could have been mistaken for short summer dresses, but the proper length was taken very seriously by beach-guards. During the 1930s, swimsuits got more familiar shapes for 21th-century eyes.

De jó a Balatonon! (1937) - Balatoni Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

In 1946, Jacques Heim ‘invented’ the high-waisted, two-piece swimsuit that revealed a part of the belly. The ‘Atome’ was advertised as the ‘world’s smallest bathing suit’. French engineer Louis Réard thought that further: he saw the secret of success in the exposed navel and the modern bikini was born. The word does not refer to the two pieces (‘bi’) but to its revolutionary idea. Absurdly, it was named after the Micronesian Bikini Atoll, the site of the US nuclear tests. America was characterised by an odd nuclear cult during the ‘50s. They even had Miss Atom Bomb contests for a couple of years. The bikini wasn’t an unmarred success, first it was regarded scandalous. Only the stripper Micheline Bernardini was willing to present the prototype to the great public.


napozok_578467.jpgSeveral years had to pass until indignation faded away and the bikini was ‘canonized’. Brigitte Bardot wore it in Manina (The Girl in the Bikini) in 1953. An iconic photo was taken of her at the time of promotions in Cannes. Owing to film-stars, the bikini became popular quickly and many of its wearers were put down in film history with their bikini-scenes: Ursula Andress in the first James Bond film Dr. No (1962) or Carrie Fisher in the Return of the Jedi (1983).

Since then, people tried to improve bikini in many ways, for example the bra with inflatable air-chambers, which had mixed reception. The monokini that does not cover busts was invented in the 1960s, with two straps in the beginning. As of the ‘70s, the swim panty that started shrinking significantly became a fashion historical phenomenon and was called ‘tanga’ or ‘thong’. Its name originates from a Brazilian tribe, who wore it traditionally. The innovation of the 1980s was the high-cut – mainly one-piece – swimsuit that will be an eternal memory for the children of the ‘90s thanks to Baywatch.

Miss Magyarország Verseny (1985) - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

And now let’s go back to the unworthily-hushed-up men’s swim wear. After the one-piece maillot that was typical even during the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the evolution of this fashion was broken: gentlemen put on high-waisted briefs or simple drawers or trunks for bathing. The revolutionary ‘fecske’ (swallow) started its conquest in Hungary during the 1950s and 60s. It was made of calico and later nylon, was usually blue with two white stripes and a tying-string. Due to its shape, it always slipped up on the stomach – leaving the thighs uncovered (in the best case). Afterwards, less slippery, tight swimming trunks arrived as well as flower-patterned knee-length surf shorts.


Translated by Zita Aknai



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