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Vintage swimwear makes a splash at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum


Riviera Style poster of vintage swimwear

The continental Riviera inspired British holidaymakers © Kirstin Sinclair

Summer weather is temperamental at the best of times, but that never stops us hardy Brits donning our swimsuits and shorts and heading to the coast to catch the glimmer of a sunray.

Come rain or shine, we’re always daring to take a dip or a quick paddle before retreating to the warmth of our cars with the promise of a fish and chip supper.

Vintage swimwear worn for modesty

Vintage swimwear, stockings and bathing hats were worn for modesty © Kirstin Sinclair

Our enthusiasm for the seaside is longstanding, going back over 100 years to the Victorian era when days at the beach were seen as a health cure and bathing dresses were worn for modesty purposes.

Charting these ever changing fashions, the latest exhibition to open at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum focuses on Riviera Style and vintage swimwear shaped by social shifts and cultural attitudes.

Male knitted vintage swimwear

Knitted swimwear often required a belt © Kirstin Sinclair

Starting at the turn of the 20th Century, the exhibition takes a look at the swimming outfits worn by men and women to cover up and eventually reveal their bodies. Initially women were completely clothed, even sporting stockings and bath hats, whilst men had slightly more freedom with all-in-one designs.

Although, the knitted fabrics the suits were made from left a lot to be desired. Often bath suits required the addition of a belt to try and keep the water clogged-knits from drooping around the knees!

1930s elasticated yarn used in vintage swimwear

Developments in yarn and fabric created figure-hugging swimsuits © Leicestershire County Council

The innovation of elastic-based yarns in the 1930s improved the fit and form of swimwear, leading to far more flattering designs.

‘The trend for sunbathing which emerged led to a radical change in the design of swimsuits and beach attire,’ says design historian and curator Dr Christina Boydell, ‘men’s and women’s suits had cut away sections and later two-piece models became popular.’

By the 1940s bathing suits had begun to mimic underwear, drawing on corsetry to sculpt the body and accentuate the female figure.

Corset style vintage swimwear

Vintage swimwear began to mirror the style of underwear and corsets © Kirstin Sinclair

As the shackles of modesty were thrown off, hoards of sun-worshippers and holidaymakers flocked to the beaches and coastal towns to show off their new silhouettes. Even travel posters, hung throughout the exhibition, portray the glamorous appeal of the British coastline as stylish and alluring as the continent.

bright vintage swimwear

The bikini was popular in the swinging sixties © Leicestershire County Council

Just like the dress hemlines of the late 1960s, bikinis and miniscule costumes were soon on the rise leaving little to the imagination. As the amount of fabric decreased and inbuilt support was reduced, it became more important for the wearer to tone their own physiques as the shrinking swimsuits could no longer mould and control the body.

The exhibition ends with the modern day suits that can be spotted by the swimming pool and on the beaches nowadays, encompassing both functionality and fashion.

The streamlined suits and Speedos sported at the 2012 Olympics and created by Stella McCartney show the practical and pretty considerations of the designer for today’s sportsmen and women.

But it’s the vintage swimwear pieces that really stole the show for us in capturing the sense of nostalgia we all share for holidays spent on Britain’s wet and windy beaches.

Riviera Style is at the Fashion and Textile Museum, 83 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3XF from 22 May – 30 August 2015.