Ah beachwear! It’s come a long way since the flannel bathing gowns of the 19th Century. But to be honest, only inasmuch as designers have now shrunk them to the size of Rudi Gernreich’s pu-bikini. Is that progress? At first blush it seems more of an attempt to be different for the sake of it.
The most popular of ladies’ beachwear these days is still the two-piece swim suit. The design came about in the early 20s and was made instantly popular by movie stars. Since then beachwear fashion may have followed the curving line of body image and self-expression but compared to street fashion it hasn’t changed that much.
At quick glance (and it has to be quick) what are the best and worst of today’s beachwear? In terms of practicality and looks, here are some of LB’s beachwear comparisons, good and bad.
The Victorians were more reserved than us when it came to bare skin. A day at the beach was about not being noticed. Women’s beachwear consisted always of an ankle-length full-sleeve dress made of thick fabric such as wool with weights sewn into the hem to stop it from rising up in the water.
This sort of beachwear may have been cumbersome and un-alluring but it had one thing going for it, namely an extraordinary protection from UV radiation. The Victorians smoked like chimneys and lived in cities that were perpetually shrouded in smog but compared to today’s low-back monokini wearers the chances of them contracting skin cancer from sunshine was next to nothing.
One of the big developments in beachwear has been fabric. Most of the first cozzies were made from wool, sometimes silk, latex, nylon or rayon. Rayon was used in the 1920s especially for form-fitting swimsuits and started brightly. But its popularity quickly diminished because when it got wet it shrank to the size of a postage stamp. These days polyester dominates the beachwear industry; its quick drying properties, colourfast nature and feel make it the best beachwear fabric.
For body forming
There wasn’t any form-fitting allowed up until 1910. Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested in 1907 for indecent exposure because her swimsuit clung to her body and exposed her arms, legs and neck. These days Kellerman’s form-fitting tank suit is still in fashion and is among a variety of styles worn by the more body conscious.
So much of what we wear is bound up in how we feel about ourselves. According to magazine Marie Claire, “the best swimwear to hide thighs is bikini bottoms with a bit more coverage, like skirts or shorties”. There are also many excellent plus-size beachwear styles to choose from such as, “a monochrome bikini with a high waist, or a design with tummy control and a contrasting neckline to draw the eye upwards”.
We’ve gone on about women’s refined attire long enough so it’s time to give the men a quick mention. While gents were wearing something similar to Kellerman’s form-fitting suit in the 1920s, the popularity of swimming drawers was more quickly adopted and legalised. By the 1948 Olympics men were allowed to swim in “briefs” (which soon became Speedos).
Admittedly, there have been one or two pauses for deep reflection on the male beachwear scene. The arrival of Borat’s mankini in 2006 caused a stir especially when others tried to emulate the look. Then three years ago out came (who could forget?) the totally ludicrous asymmetrical thong. But thankfully such nonsense has been brought under control…for now.