Riviera Style: Resort & Swimwear


In May 2014 I curated Riviera Style at the Fashion & Textile Museum, London. Below is the text that accompanied the exhibits and some images of the show. (If you quote from the text or re-use any of the images please attach the following acknowledgement [Christine Boydell: http://www.festivalofpattern.wordpress.com / Fashion & Textile Museum, 2016]


The exhibition celebrated the rich array of clothing worn in and by the sea and focused on how clothing design, fabric and attitudes to exposing the body have changed since the late nineteenth century.

Visits to the seaside first became popular in the eighteenth century when wealthy individuals sought to improve their health by submersion in sea water. The nineteenth century saw the growth of the seaside town, boosted by the development of rail travel. By the early twentieth century the coastal resort provided leisure and pleasure for people of all classes, whether on a day trip to Blackpool or an extended stay on the French Côte d’Azur – the playground of the aristocratic and wealthy.

As the twentieth century progressed the health benefits of sunshine gradually superseded those of sea bathing. Swimming costumes became less restrictive and more practical with the dual purpose of concealing the body for reasons of modesty, while simultaneously exposing some skin – enabling the newly fashionable suntan.

The ingenuity of swimwear and textile manufacturers is central to the story of ‘Riviera Style’. They progressively developed styles and fabrics that did not cling, bag or stretch and enhanced the wearer’s appearance by moulding and controlling the body. Body-shaping reflected fashionable silhouettes, whether the straight and narrow shapes of the 1920s, or the nipped in waists and curvaceous contours of the 1950s.

The British seaside, the swimming pool, the lido and the Mediterranean resort became the locations for individuals to reveal their bodies and to test the boundaries of morality and social convention.


As bathing became a recreational pastime in the mid-nineteenth century so specialised clothing was developed largely to preserve the wearer’s modesty. Women were required to wear a bathing dress that completely covered the body – bloomers, an over-dress, stockings, headgear and boots. 

Initially beaches operated segregation of the sexes and men often swam naked. By the beginning of the twentieth century men and women were able to enjoy the beach together and men wore short–legged drawers and later a one-piece, knee-length costume. During this time seaside resorts expanded to accommodate a growing number of holiday makers.

Swimwear needs to look good when wet and dry, but early examples made of woven flannel or serge, absorbed water, became very heavy and saggy and made swimming difficult. By the 1890s lighter knitted silks, wools and cottons were also used. Dark colours (black, navy and red) predominated because they did not become transparent when wet. As the popularity of swimming grew more practical clothing was developed. In 1907 the Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman removed the skirt from her bathing dress and stitched stockings onto the legs creating a one piece suit. Ready-to-wear examples were produced with detachable skirts and shorter sleeves that resulted in a one-piece costume that was almost identical to those worn by men.

In 1913 the Portland Knitting Company in Oregon, USA (re-named Jantzen) developed a one-piece woollen garment in a rib stitch knit that had much more stretch than previous examples and heralded a revolution in swimwear.

Not everyone swam in the sea – the cost of purchasing or hiring swimwear was prohibitive to many, but paddling could be enjoyed by anyone. Images of holiday-makers in their formal Edwardian clothes with women hitching up their skirts and men in suits with rolled up trousers was a common sight at the seaside.

CLING, BAG, STRETCH [1920-1939] 

The 1920s and 1930s saw increasing exposure of the body at the swimming pool, the lido and the beach and was a response to the fashion for a sun-tan. A more relaxed attitude to dressing saw brightly coloured beach pyjamas worn by women and less formal clothing adopted by men. 

Most people had very restricted opportunities to go on holiday and it was not until 1938 that the Holidays with Pay Act granted one week’s annual paid holiday. Billy Butlin had opened his first holiday camp in Skegness in 1936. The influence of the Mediterranean Riviera could be seen in the glamorised representation of British seaside locations in travel posters of the period.

Up until the 1930s men were required by law to cover their torsos, but swimsuits with cut out sections (for men and women) tested the boundaries. As rules were relaxed two piece suits appeared for women and men’s tops were detachable. Trunks for both sexes usually covered the navel and the incorporation of a modesty skirt to cover the crotch area was common.

Swimwear in the 1920s was dominated by knitted wool and while providing some stretch and fit it was very uncomfortable when wet. During the 1930s brand new fabrics were developed. Elastic-based threads were introduced which was wound around cotton, wool, silk or rayon yarn to produce lastex. Described as a ‘miracle yarn’, it could be woven or knitted and provided two-way stretch maintaining its shape even when wet, although the resulting swimwear tended to be very expensive.

Swimwear manufacturer Martin White developed the ‘telescopic’ swimsuit in 1937 to accommodate bodies of different sizes. Parallel rows of cotton-covered rubber (lactron) elastic thread were sewn to the inside of the swimsuit in both directions, resulting in ruching. Swimwear is essentially a form of underwear worn in public and therefore it is not surprising that by the 1930s many corsetry and underwear manufacturers had branched out into swimwear production.

MOULD AND CONTROL [1940-1959] 

It was the relationship between corsetry and swimwear that characterised the 1940s and 1950s. Many companies promoted their women’s swimsuits as ‘corset-cut’ – emphasising the fashionable curvaceous shape by expert cutting and built-in support. This allowed for strapless suits facilitating better tanning and fit was enhanced by back zip fasteners.

Swimwear production virtually stopped during the Second World War and home-knitted versions enjoyed a short revival. Two piece women’s suits that covered the navel were seen increasingly, but even though the bikini was introduced by Louis Réard in Paris 1946, it was not commonly worn until the 1960s. Decorum continued to be maintained by most suits being cut straight across at top or mid-thigh level.

Nylon, developed before the war, started to be used for swimwear, its lightweight and quick-drying qualities being celebrated. Other fabrics included rayon, cotton and shiny satins. These were influenced by the publicity shots of male and female Hollywood stars looking alluring in their swimsuits. Former US swimming champion Esther Williams appeared in a number of swimming-themed films and created her own line of costumes for Cole of California in the 1950s.

An impression of cinematic glamour could be seen in the swim-suited contestants of numerous beauty contests held in British seaside towns, such the Bathing Beauty Queen contest (renamed Miss Great Britain in 1956) held in Morecambe, Lancashire between 1945 and 1989.

As more people were able to afford a holiday by the sea, at home or abroad, manufacturers took the opportunity to make clothing especially for the resort. The brightly patterned playsuit was created as part of the beach ensemble and the cotton sundress was a must-have purchase for the summer holiday. Many of the prints found on these garments reflected the growing popularity of Continental holidays. 

BODY BEAUTIFUL [1960-1989] 

During the 1960s new fibres (such as elastane) were developed specifically to improve fit and gradually the internal structure of the swimsuit could be dispensed with. The 1960s and 1970s saw an enormous range of styles of swimsuit available with an emphasis on providing garments for a variety of body shapes. The 1980s saw plunging necklines and high-cut legs that left little to the imagination and it became the responsibility of the wearer to maintain a suitably toned body.

Cheaper air travel and package deals meant that the Mediterranean resort was an affordable holiday choice for many. The search for an all over suntan saw a reduction in the amount of fabric used in swimwear and the trikini and bikini were increasingly worn. Before topless sunbathing became acceptable in the 1980s, the designer Rudi Gernreich introduced the topless ‘monokini’ in 1964.

Men’s swimming garments also shrank, largely due to the efforts of Gloria Smythe, designer for the Australian company Speedo, which was well known for its racing swimwear. For each Olympic Games from 1964 onwards Smythe reduced the amount of fabric used in men’s trunks until by 1972 they were down to 1.25 centimetres at the sides. The word ‘speedo’ has since become synonymous with tiny trunks.

During the 1960s and 1970s pattern predominated with psychedelic prints in acid colours. Palazzo pants and other resort wear with designs by Emilio Pucci are particularly noteworthy.

The body-conscious 1980s saw women in plain coloured costumes with plunging necklines and styling that enhanced cleavage. Swimsuits with high-cut legs and thongs all contributed to the general reduction in fabric used. With internal structure removed, the responsibility for body-moulding transferred from the manufacturer to the individual swimsuit wearer – who had to exercise and diet to achieve the ideal.


Over the last 25 years there has been a return to an emphasis on body-moulding and an expansion in the market for resort wear. Continuing advances in fabric technology have provided tan-through fabrics and speed enhancing materials that have help shave seconds off Olympic swimming records.

The period since 1990 has seen the relationship between swimwear and fashion develop. All the top design houses produce holiday clothing and swimwear and trends change regularly. During the mid-1990s flamboyant luxury was seen in diamante and rhinestone encrusted swimsuits and resort and cruise collections are now available all year round.

It is common for bikini tops and bottoms to be sold separately as the industry have finally acknowledged that women may not come in standard sizes. Key countries for swimwear design and manufacture are Brazil, Australia, the USA and the UK.

In the competitive sports arena the quest has been to find the best fabric to boost speed and performance and such advances in fabric technology find their way into swimwear for everyone. Speedo developed the full-body Fastskin suit in 1999, made of Teflon-coated Lycra (elastane), followed by LZR Racer in 2008 which was so effective that more than 130 records were broken in less than a year by swimmers wearing it – resulting in its ban.

Fabric technology has been used in swimwear and resort wear to create garments with tummy-control panels to smooth ‘problem’ areas and draping to disguise the less than perfect figure. Male consumers can purchase trunks with a hidden ‘comfy cup’ to support and enhance.






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