Why do people wear bikinis when swimming

From sailor suits to bikini: swimwear through the ages

Status: 19.05.2021 09:55 a.m.

From hoop skirts hung with weights to sailor suits to bikini: The development of swimwear reflects fashions, the development of textiles and social moral concepts of the time.

by Janine Kühl

After the British, French and Dutch, at the end of the 18th century, the Germans finally discovered staying in the seaside resort. In Doberan, the first seaside resort on the German coast was founded in 1793 on the Heiligen Damm, which later became the Heiligendamm seaside resort. In the following 100 years, more and more seaside resorts were built on the North and Baltic Sea coasts as well as on the islands.

"Eel boxes": bathtubs in the sea

"Swimming is good for public health," said the doctor Johann Gottlieb Vogel at the end of the 19th century. But in the beginning it's usually more about keeping your feet in the sea water. The number of guests in the seaside resorts is still manageable, only aristocrats and the rich can afford the cure at the sea. Many cannot swim. And above all, no one, especially not the women, should be seen lightly dressed. The nude bathing recommended by Vogel was best done in so-called eel boxes. In these special bathing boats with bars anchored on the seabed, people bathe in the sea - out of sight and without the risk of drowning.

Swimming accidents caused by wet, heavy clothing

Bathers can be driven directly to the water with bathing carts. In long dresses, the ladies keep their feet in the cool water. The main thing is that the skin is covered up to the ankle. Hoop skirts are hung with weights to prevent them from sliding up. The costumes made of wool, linen and silk, however, quickly soak up water and become heavy - even swimming accidents occur.

Separate bathing areas will soon develop, especially on the Baltic Sea: with a wall as a partition, women and men can go into the sea without eye contact with the opposite sex and dressed modestly. Maintaining a sufficient distance is strictly controlled - so-called "Kieker", who watch the opposite sex from a dune, must expect fines.

Striped one-pieces and fashionable bloomers

Modesty when bathing at the beginning of the 20th century: women wear plump one-piece suits.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the models gradually became shorter and more functional. "You can only talk about something like swimwear from around 1900," explains Jürgen Kraft from Ahlbeck, who is intensively involved with the history of swimwear. Around 1900 men bathe in striped one-pieces with straps and shorts made of tricot fabric. This gives more freedom of movement for the now popular swimming sport. Meanwhile, the women wear fashionable bloomers and bathing shirts made of flannel and linen, often with a skirt over them. Shortly after the turn of the century, early swimsuits made of wool or cotton appeared, but they were still quite long and high-necked. Above all, it is important that the fabric is not translucent. In the emerging family baths, the gentlemen have to wear longer clothes again.

Kellerman criticizes "clothesline full of fabric"

The Australian Annette Kellerman caused a sensation. The successful swimmer and film actress, who wins numerous competitions and swims long distances on the Thames and Danube, criticizes the female swimwear: "I want to swim - and I can't do that with a clothesline full of fabric on my body!" In 1907, Kellerman was arrested for causing public nuisance after swimming in a tight-fitting one-piece suit. Kellerman's appearance is the impetus that swimwear for women is slowly becoming more functional and safer.

The wild 1920s: Bathing freely

It was not until the 1920s that women were able to get rid of their heavy, long swimwear completely - the spirit of optimism of the era continued to affect swimwear. The first swimwear show is taking place on Berlinder Ku'damm, but it is still met with a lot of headwind. In suits made of light cotton jersey with shorts, both sexes plunge into bathing pleasure. The nudist movement that emerged at the beginning of the 19th century is gaining popularity. In many circles, such as the free spirits of the Bauhaus movement, nude bathing is becoming more and more popular - of course not in public bathing establishments.

The "Zwickelerlass" from 1932

While many parts of Europe are now bathing relatively freely, Germany is soon taking a step backwards. The so-called gusset decree of 1932 is intended to ensure that the swimsuits do not fit too tightly.

§ 1. (1) Public nude bathing is prohibited.
(2) Women are only allowed to bathe in public if they wear a bathing suit that completely covers the chest and body on the front of the upper body, fits tightly under the arms and has cut legs and a gusset. The back of the swimsuit must not extend beyond the lower end of the shoulder blades.
(3) Men are only allowed to bathe in public if they are wearing at least one bathing suit with cut legs and a gusset. In so-called family baths, men have to wear a bathing suit. Excerpt from the Bathing Police Ordinance of the Prussian Ministry of the Interior of November 1, 1932

"That was a laugh for the baths all around Germany," said Jürgen Kraft. In the years that followed, the cruel policies of the Nazi regime also had an impact on the swimwear industry, which has been developing since the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1940s, German swimwear companies employed slave labor. Merchants loyal to the regime take over cheap companies whose Jewish owners had to emigrate.

Chemical fibers are revolutionizing swimwear

From the 1950s onwards, the development of nylon fabrics made major improvements to swimsuits and shorts. It is true that water-repellent wool already brought more comfort. But it is only with modern fibers that swimmers can get significantly better fitting, opaque swimwear. "The chemical fibers made the swimsuits lighter, offered more freedom of movement and dried quickly," explains Jürgen Kraft.

Summer 1946: the bikini outraged

When Louis Réard presented the first bikini he had developed in 1946, moralists sensed the fall of man. But the two small pieces of fabric prevail.

In the summer of 1946, the French mechanical engineer Louis Réard caused a scandal: he designed a short two-piece suit for women, called it a bikini and had it publicly demonstrated in Paris. Similar two-parters are already known to the Romans, as can be seen in the paintings and mosaics. In the 1920s, too, some women wore two-piece swimwear. But Réard's costume is cut much more tightly and is given a sonorous name: Bikini, named after the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific, over which the USA dropped the first atomic bomb of the post-war period shortly before. At that time, little was known about the dangers of nuclear power - and the exotic name Bikini was a complete marketing success. The product revolutionizes swimwear. Réard explains his motivation for lighter women’s swimwear back then: "Swimming 100 meters in a woman’s suit is as exhausting as a kilometer in a man’s suit."

The Bikini Art Museum

The museum in Bad Rappenau deals with fashionable, social and political aspects of swimwear. external

Permissive GDR - prudish FRG

After the division of Germany, the development of swimwear in the GDR took a slightly different course than in the west. While nudism is very popular in the east, in large parts of West Germany prudish morals still prevail for a long time, which also affect swimwear and regulations. However, as Jürgen Kraft reports, East German factories took over a large part of the production for the market in West Germany for a long time.

Since then, preferences for colors, patterns and cuts have changed rapidly. But in principle, bathing suits and bikinis for women and swimming trunks for men have remained the common swimming dresses for decades. It remains to be seen where the development will go. What we wear in the water is always an expression of social norms, possibilities of production and materials - and last but not least the equality of women and men.

Naked and free? Nudist culture in the GDR

In the GDR, nudism was part of the summer vacation. From Ahrenshoop to Zinnowitz, nude bathing was a piece of freedom for many. The government could not do anything about this either. more

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Our story | 05/26/2021 | 9:00 p.m.