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From Stockings to Bikinis: The History of Beachwear

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Here’s to summer, sun and skin. Lots of skin (or none of it at all), depending on when and where you were at the time…

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1824: The year it all began.

Maria Carolina de Berry wears the first bathing suit in the history of beachwear. Sure enough, her outfit consists of (wait for it…) a hat, umbrella, gloves, woolen stockings, clothing made of thick fabrics and a pair of shiny shoes. Prior to de Berry, no noblewoman dared venture into the water. (Gentlewomen were taken to the shore in a carriage, from which they could dip their toes daintily into the water.)

Why so covered up? Tans were looked down upon; any bit of “healthy” color belonged on the farmers and fishermen of the “lower” classes. Beachwear, from de Berry on forward, consists of a striped tunic in thick wool, complete with a petticoat, underskirt and stockings and accessorized with a bonnet and rubbers shoes. Little changes in the world of beachwear until the early 1900s. A French designer lightens the load by introducing a tube-like sheath dress and fitted pants to the market for what became known as the Victorian swimsuit.

1923: Loco for Coco!

Leave it to the purveyor of tweed jackets, LBDs and costume jewelry to popularize the tan. In 1923, Coco Chanel returns from a Riviera holiday spent on the Duke of Westminster’s yacht with a glorious, golden glow. She’s inspired and features models in shorts and low-cut tops sporting sun-kissed skin. Four years later, tanned models grace the pages of British Vogue… and tanning becomes the new pale.

1930: Golden Girls

Tanning is all the rage, the first backless swimsuit debuts on the beach, elastin fibers finally replace jersey swimwear, and US beachwear brands Jantzen, Catalina and Cole dominate the swim market by having the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and Esther Williams parade around in their one-pieces.

In 1933, the trikini is born, and we get our first look at the bikini revolution to come. The trikini is almost a two-piece, only the top and bottom half are linked. (For modern reference, think modest monokini.)

But wait!

Then there’s Marta Abba who shocks all of Castiglioncello, Italy, by sunbathing on the beach with the world’s very first bikini.

July 10, 1946: Bikini Bomb

Louis Reard officially patents the bikini in France, naming the scandalous two-piece after the island where nuclear explosives were once tested (and presumably to describe the social and cultural effect it would have on the world thereafter).

1950s: Bikini Babes

Bikinis pose a threat to moral decency in the early 1950s, most notably in Italy where the Minister of Home Affairs has police patrol beaches, rulers in hand, to measure women’s two-pieces (anything deemed “excessively skimpy” was a legal offense!).

It takes the bikini-clad Lucia Bose and Sophia Loren appearing in front of Miss Italia’s judging panel to win over Italy. Brigitte Bardot stars as The Girl in the Bikini before becoming the ultimate inspiration for French-ladies-who-beach. Marilyn Monroe takes the world with her curves – leaving women around the world wanting to copy the iconic two-piece.

1960s: Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini

The hit single is released and bikinis go from high-waisted and sweet to barely there. Women’s curves are revered and bikinis are celebrated. Ursula Andress appears on screen as the first Bond girl in that unforgettable white get-up. More skin means more sun – and sunbathing becomes a pastime. Coppertone releases Quick Tan – affectionately known as QT – for orange-brown color in a matter of hours. It’s a hint at a healthier alternative to sunbathing.

1980s: A bikini overload…

… leads to the revival of the one-piece bathing suit. There are cutouts and crochet (probably influenced by the 70s) as well as lace and Lycra (finally!). The past few decades of overexposure to dangerous UV rays have finally raised the concerns of dermatologists and, in 1986, SPF 15 is born.

1990s: Back in the Day

Beachwear has a throwback (not to the 1800s, thank goodness). Vintage-inspired swimwear from the 40s, 50s and 60s come back into vogue and hit the beaches. Sunscreen is manufactured with SPF 30 as the public is made more aware of the importance of preventive suncare.


Bikinis, monokinis or nothing at all – the choice is yours. We celebrate pale skin while also championing a true healthy, sun-kissed glow.

So what’s your pick? Tell us in the comments below!

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Author: Kimberly Yang

I hold these truths to be self-evident, that skin care is paramount, green tea is everything, and the Internet rules all (typical Gen-Y philosophy; if it wasn't 'grammed, it never happened). Also pertinent: writer, content creator, national sales director at Mario Badescu. For more about me, visit my Google+ page.

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  1. Pingback: What To Pack: Your Vacation Style | Mario Badescu Skin Care Blog

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