Women's swimwear in the 1940s & 1950s

Written by shannon reynolds
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Women's swimwear in the 1940s & 1950s
The 50s-style top-of-the-leg one piece looks mighty modest in our contemporary context. (George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

Women's fashion has perhaps never changed so drastically and rapidly as it has in the past 100 years, and this is particularly true in the case of women's swimwear. By the middle of the 20th century, women's swimwear had transformed from the long skirt and full-coverage outfits of the 19th century into some of the earliest forms of modern one-pieces and bikinis.

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Corset Swimwear

According to FashionEra, a website devoted to researching trends in fashion throughout the last century, women's swimsuits began to adopt corset-like attributes during the 1940s: "corsetry was losing ground, but the new, more revealing swimsuits really needed experts to design garments that hid faults in a woman's shape." Some of these features included control panels for the belly and bra cups for the chest.

Swimming Caps

Swimming caps were very popular during the 1940s and 1950s. The elegant and elaborate hairstyles worn by young women of the time period reacted badly to getting wet and a young woman would swim, According to Fashion Era, "usually holding her head well out of the water."

One-pieces

In the 1940s and 1950s, one-piece swimwear was still predominant for women, although the legs had come up from their 1920s and 1930s mid-thigh position to the top of the leg, and stretchy fabrics incorporating latex, elastic, and zippers replaced the cotton of previous decades. A Collectors Weekly article on postwar and 1950s fashion writes that "stretch satin was also employed, and by the end of the 1940s . . . fast-drying nylon and Celanese rayon had essentially take over." According to Fashion Era, the top-of-the-leg style with "separate matching crotch" was known as a "modesty apron."

Early Bikinis

Most women in the 40s and 50s wore one-piece swimming suits, but Louis Reard designed the first modern bikini in 1946 and named it after Bikini Atoll, test site of the first atomic bomb. His design was more akin to the skimpy string 1970s bikinis, but a more conservative, full-panty style bikini was what caught on in the West during the 40s and 50s; two piece suits typically still covered the belly button.

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