From bikinis to burkinis: the evolution of women's swimwear

From bathing machines and bikinis to modest collections, modern swimwear has come full circle

Nike will release its new modest collection in February 2020. Courtesy of Nike
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Nike has unveiled its modest swimwear collection, called Victory Swim, with many describing the range as a game-changer for professional swimmers who choose to cover up. However, while the world is busy applauding the move towards inclusivity, it's worth noting there was a time when conservative swimwear was the norm. The modern two-piece bikini was only invented in 1946, more than a century after the first swimming apparel.

It was in the early 1800s that swimming first started to be accepted as a recreational activity. Bathing gowns at the time were loose, full-sleeved and made of materials such as wool or flannel that did not threaten the modesty of the wearer – although it didn't make being in the water any easier, either.

The Victorian era took things to another level, with the rise of bathing machines in Britain, as well as parts of France, Germany, Mexico and the US. These were small carriages that could be wheeled into shallow water so women could get in and out without revealing too much skin to bystanders. Over the years, the garment even took on the form of a dress with pantaloons.

Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman advocated fitted one-piece swimsuits. In 1907, she was arrested for wearing one of her pieces at Revere Beach, Massachusetts, but that only served to heighten the style's popularity. By 1910, one-piece suits became acceptable attire for women in Europe.

In the years to come, swimming grew in popularity as a sport, and functionality – not fashion – became key to the designs of costumes. When women's swimming was introduced as an event at the 1912 Summer Olympic Games, many competitors wore suits similar to Kellerman's design, which in turn was not too different from what men were wearing. In the 1930s, the development of materials such as latex and nylon meant swimwear became more figure-hugging.

The Second World War also had a part to play in the design of modern swimsuits. During the conflict, a rationing of textiles led to clothing manufacturers reducing the amount of fabric in women's beachwear. As a result, two-piece swimsuits (and bare midriffs) started becoming commonplace.

This rationing of material also led French automotive engineer and clothing designer, Louis Reard, to create the first bikini in 1946, named after the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, where nuclear weapons were being tested at the time. The idea behind the name, it seemed, was to use the coverage of the nuclear tests to keep the swimsuit in the news.

Even as one-piece swimsuits and bikinis became common all over the world, in the past few years there has been a demand for more conservative swimwear. In 2004, designer Aheda Zanetti created the burkini for for women who want to dress modestly and many brands followed suit. And when burkinis were banned in some parts of France, it only led to an increase in sales, a la Kellerman.

This year, American model Halima Aden further popularised modest swimwear when she became the first woman to pose in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue wearing a hijab and burkini. And with Nike taking the plunge into this increasingly lucrative market, it looks like swimwear has – almost – come full circle.