The first swimwear was designed to cover the body to preserve modesty, predominantly made of dark coloured, heavy (particularly when wet) and restrictive natural materials, such as wool. As the beneficial ‘dip’ in the sea for health reasons developed into bathing as a leisure activity, the associated clothing evolved, being influenced by mainstream fashion, societal attitudes to body exposure and advancements in textile technology. Lastex™, an elastic yarn consisting of an extruded rubber core covered in cotton, rayon, wool or silk thread, was first developed in 1931 and revolutionised the swimwear industry. It could be used with a variety of fabrics to mould to the body, providing improved fit, freedom and control, wet or dry. The ‘telescopic’ water suit (1), first developed by Martin White in 1937, is shirred with parallel rows of Lastex™ sewn into the quick drying nylon satin. The adjustable straps and cut-outs reflect the trend for sunbathing that was fashionable at that time.
The 1950s were characterised by constructed swimsuits, with boning, padding and control panels all aided by synthetic materials to achieve an hourglass figure. The internal support structure built into the Sears acetate-blend costume (2), is enhanced by side ruching and a central back zip to achieve the desired body shape.
Nylon (polyamide) and polyester fabrics were commonly used throughout this period because they were strong, durable, light and dried rapidly. From the 1960s, they began to be combined with Lycra™, a polyurethane elastomeric fibre that provided four times the stretch of previous rubber-based threads and stretch yarns. Skin-tight suits, like the example from Slix (3), soon became the new ideal, revealing a toned and sculpted body instead of being designed to conceal, shape or support.
Modern developments include tan-through fabrics such as Transol® (4), a polyester/elastane transparent mesh with a camouflage print, and innovations designed to make swimming more inclusive. Examples include Nike’s range of modest swimwear (5) in a nylon/elastane mix, providing full coverage without restricting motion, and the silicone Swimma cap (6), made for diverse hair types and volume hairstyles.