Riviera Style: 100 years of swimwear

A new exhibition in London explores one hundred years of clothing worn in and by the sea, from knitted bathing dresses made with bloomers, to the 21st century burkini, and everything in between.

Over 100 years of beachwear is being celebrated at a new exhibition in London.

Riviera Style at the Fashion and Textile Museum highlights the evolution of resort and swimwear styles, from conservative Edwardian cover-ups to modern bikinis.

Story continues below

One of the curators of the exhibition is Dr Christine Boydell – a design historian from De Montfort University – who also managed Taking the Plunge, a smaller show held at the Snibston Discovery Museum in Leicestershire from February to April 2014.

She says this is the first time that the history of swimwear has been explored in an exhibition of this scale.

“There have been other, similar exhibitions at regional museums, but I think the scale of the exhibition is key.There are about 200 items on display – more objects than the museum has ever had to handle in an exhibition before,” she explains.

Opening with clothes from the 1890s, when doctors prescribed days at the beach as a health cure, the exhibition tells the story of fashion and our changing attitudes to modesty.

It also shows the efforts of designers and manufacturers to enhance the wearer’s appearance, and some of the technological developments in elite performance swimwear that have slashed Olympic records and found their way into the local swimming pool.


At the turn of the 20th century, women wore voluminous bathing dresses that preserved their modesty but weren’t at all practical for swimming.

Made from a woollen woven fabric called serge, and featuring bloomers and long sleeves, these garments dragged under the water when wet.

“They were designed for bathing and that meant taking the waters for health reasons and being plunged into the sea. People believed in the health benefits of sea water,” says Boydell.

“You’d come out and get changed into your day clothes, and often that happened in a beach hut or a beach carriage that was wheeled into the sea.”

At that time, beaches were segregated by sex and men swam in the sea naked. It wasn’t until 1900 – when beaches became mixed – that swimwear was developed for men, who, like women, were also expected to cover up.

By 1910, beachwear was manufactured using a knitted cotton stockinette, a lighter fabric than the material used to make bathing dresses.

But this innovation presented another problem – the fabric turned transparent when wet, so colours had to be dark in order to preserve the wearer’s modesty.


This section of the exhibition looks at the various fabrics that were developed to allow swimwear and beachwear garments to fit better.

The introduction of rib stitch knitting in the 1920s was a real innovation born out of the Portland Knitting Company, which later became Jantzen.

“Swimsuits fitted much better because of this fabric – it was able to stretch – but it still had all the problems of absorbing water and going baggy and saggy as a result,” says Boydell.

In the 1930s, a manufacturer named Martin White developed a technique called “telescopic” technology, where covered elastic was sewn horizontally and vertically inside the swimsuit to create a ruching effect.

A licence to use this technology was later taken out by R & WH Symington, a Market Harborough-based company, with the aim of creating a one-size-fits-all swimsuit.

“Symington is really important in the swimwear story and in this exhibition because Leicester Museum, which provided a lot of the objects, has a fantastic collection of Symington swimwear, and none of it has been worn. So, most of the garments in the exhibition are in perfect condition,” says Boydell.

The 1920s and 30s were also periods of pushing the boundaries of modesty. In 1923, Coco Chanel inadvertently popularised the suntan when she accidently got sunburned while on a cruise on the French Riviera.

On her return to Paris, her peers greatly admired her dark glow and quickly followed suit. This trend resulted in swimwear designers looking to expose more flesh.

Both men and women wore all-in-one suits that covered the chest, but arms and shoulders were exposed.

Swimsuits were later made with buttons sewn onto the shoulder straps, which served both functional and aesthetic purposes.

“The buttons helped swimsuits fit better, but also, some men would undo the buttons on one shoulder to let one side of the top fall down,” explains Boydell.

“Some men even rolled down their swimsuits, which led to the development of detachable tops.”


Moving on to the 1940s and 1950s, manufacturers started to use corsetry techniques to create swimwear that sculpted the body, creating the curvaceous silhouette that was popular at the time.

“A lot of manufacturers, including Symington, promoted the fact that they had corsetry specialists designing swimwear,” says Boydell.

Manufacturers began to use stretch such as elastic and Lastex – a combination of elastic yarn and other yarns like satin and cotton. Similar to Lycra, Lastex created a two-way stretch.

Nylon also became increasingly important during this period, explains Boydell. “There’s a nice example of a Symington’s nylon suit on display at the exhibition. That was designed for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Of course, nylon, although it doesn’t stretch, dries quickly and is very lightweight,” she says.

Interestingly, these materials were developed in the 1930s, but were only used in manufacturing in the 40s and 50s, after the war ended.

“During the war, the production of swimwear practically stopped for obvious reasons – it wasn’t an essential product,” says Boydell.

Two-piece swimwear became popular in the 1950s, but garments were still modest, with bottoms covering the naval and cut low to conceal the crotch.

Men’s swimsuits also reduced in size during this period. “We’ve got a great pair of high-waist briefs in the exhibition that are laced up at the sides,” enthuses Boydell. “It was one of the objects that shocked me the most I think. Whether they were worn on the beach or not, I don’t know.”

Swimwear became a factor in the beauty contests of the 50s, 60s and 70s. In 1965, Diana Westbury wore a swimsuit by R & WH Symington when she was crowned

Miss Great Britain by comedians Morecambe and Wise in the Lancashire resort of Morecambe.

A photograph that captures this moment is on display alongside the Symington’s garment at Riviera Style.


By 1960, bright, vibrant colours were being worn on beaches around the Mediterranean – as foreign package holidays started to become popular.

Beach pyjamas of the 1920s and playsuits from the 1950s were replaced with sarongs and cover-ups that were worn over bikinis as holidaymakers crossed the road from their hotel in the Costa del Sol to the beach.

“Before about 1960, it was only the wealthy people that managed to get to the French Riviera, so the title of the exhibition is there to reflect the fact that British holiday destinations promoted themselves as Riviera-like,” says Boydell.

“We’ve got these glamorous travel posters on display that advertised destinations like Scarborough, but you’d be hard pressed to realise this.”

The period from 1960 to the end of the 1980s was also characterised by the shrinking swimsuit. As the amount of fabric decreased and internal support was reduced, it became more important for the wearer to improve their physique through exercise and diet.

“Bikinis were seen everywhere and a lot of swimsuits were made with mesh to reveal and conceal flesh,” explains Boydell.

“Structure was no longer there to mould your body – it was more down to the individual to get their bodies ‘beach ready’ by being fit and healthy.”

By the 1980s, swimsuits began to resemble the leotards worn by celebrities in fitness videos. Supermodel Jerry Hall designed a range for TRULO at the time, which featured a high-leg swimsuit with a satin finish.

Men’s briefs also shrank in size once more, as Speedos became popular. From 1952 to 1991, Gloria Smythe, chief designer for Speedo in Australia, increased the brand’s reputation for fast swimwear. She researched the hydrodynamics of garments and made several innovations in the quest for speed and fashion.


At the turn of the 20th century, sophisticated fabric technology found its way to the beach via competitive swimming at the highest level.

Riviera Style displays the LZR Racer suit developed by Speedo. Made from Teflon-coated Lycra, it streamlines the body by reducing resistance through water – a stark contrast to the bathing dresses worn 100 years ago.

The suit helped break so many swimming records that it was eventually banned from competitions after the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Also on display at the exhibition is the Team GB swimsuit designed by Stella McCartney and developed by Adidas for the 2012 Olympic Games. This was made out of recycled nylon and spandex.

As well as speed, Second Skin represents style, with sexy and sensual pieces on display, including some comical pieces, like the mankini, and men’s enhancing trunks designed by Andrew Christian.

Designers including Paolita, Anna Sui, Orlebar Brown and Gossard have also exhibited their fashionable swimwear collections in this section of the show.

Towards the end of the exhibition, Riviera Style demonstrates a renewed interest in modesty-oriented and shaping swimwear in current times, with the headline-grabbing burkini worn by Nigella Lawson in 2011 and slimming swimsuits from Miraclesuit on display.

Perhaps we have gone full circle from the cover-all days of the Edwardians and the mould and control days of the 1940s.

Riviera Style closes on August 29.



Related posts