Making a Splash

Australian Swimwear

Wet Wool

The beach scene looked drastically different back in the old days. Forget skimpy bikinis and budgie smugglers, knitted wool and cotton suits were all the rage. People used to hit the waves wearing demure collared one-piece suits with pants that reached the knees. Swimming caps were a hit with women who wanted to protect their fashionable bobbed hairstyles from the sun and surf. Geometric designs, especially stripes, were very popular for both men and women. Early swimwear styles might look dowdy and comical from a modern perspective, but at the time, they were considered to be quite revealing.

The use of knitted wool and cotton for swimwear had definite drawbacks. Knitted wool suits got heavy and saggy when immersed in water. Suits made from cotton were just as bad, given the excellent absorbency of the fabric. Designers did what they could to counteract sagging with the use of canvas belts, but it was still a major problem. The introduction of Lastex, a stretchy textile made from Latex in 1925 had a major impact on the industry. Designers had a much more suitable medium to work with. When compared to knitted wool, Lastex was a more figure-hugging fabric. This tempted designers to create controversial pieces and indeed, they did.

Swimwear brands began to cross the line between conservative and risqué as the 1930’s came around. For the first time, swimsuits featuring daring cut-out V backs hit the market. Belted waists and block colours were key trends. While adventurous looks featuring prints and bright colours were popular, art deco designs ultimately ruled the decade. In 1938, chemist Wallace Hume Carothers invented nylon, shifting the way swimwear manufacturers did business and allowing for further design development. Nylon was the first all-synthetic fabric. A lightweight, water-resistant textile with excellent durability, nylon was another important step forward for the swimwear industry.

Glamorous Turn

One of the biggest and most shocking innovations in swimwear was the invention of the bikini in 1946. Although mosaics and murals have been discovered that depict women in brief two piece outfits dating back to ancient Greece and Italy, the bikini as we know it is a relatively recent innovation. Two Frenchmen, Louise Reard and Jacques Heim, are credited with its invention. Originally called the ‘Atome’ and later renamed after Bikini Atoll, there were no models in Paris willing to show off the daring design. A nude dancer named Micheline Bernardini eventually modelled the scandalous bikini to an eager press at a public pool, the Piscine Molitor. When the bikini hit Australia, it stirred up a storm of controversy as it had overseas. The shock slowly wore off and in later decades, the itsy-bitsy bikini would prove to be a pillar of the swimwear industry.

After years of condemnation, in the 1950’s men wearing swimming trunks while shirtless was finally acceptable. At this time, too, the desired bombshell silhouette for women extended to swimwear. Designers used boned bodices and padded cone shaped bras to achieve a curvaceous, hourglass look. The one-piece became sexy with draping, ruching, ruffles and sweetheart necklines. Many swimsuits mirrored evening dress designs with pink and black as a common colour combination. Plaid patterns were particularly popular during the early and late 1950’s. In addition to plaid, polka dot prints were popular with consumers. Masses of well-coiffed female customers purchased bathing caps inspired by picture perfect film stars. In 1958, Spandex – later marketed as Lycra – was invented, forever changing the swimwear industry.

Swimwear designers began experimenting with a variety of different materials and fabrics during the 1960’s and 70’s. Never-before-seen materials like plastic rings, mesh, and crochet made their way into one-piece and bikini designs. Psychedelic prints in wildly clashing colours filtered into the swimwear scene. Feeling liberated, many women began buying and wearing the once controversial bikini with pride. Boy-cut leg bikinis were popular throughout the decade. The tiny thong bikini was introduced in the 1970’s, although it never caught on. This risqué style had more success with customers in Europe.

The Controversy Continues

The fast-moving era of the 1980’s was an exciting time for the swimwear industry. Just like regular fashion, swimwear for men and women was neon, bright and bold. High cut string bikini briefs were en vogue, as well as plunging necklines, cut out backs, and larger than life patterns. Designers used shiny fabrics and frills to give their creations a hint of Dallas.

These styles lasted barely into the 1990’s, as the industry got grittier and steadily gained more street cred. The showy swimwear of the previous decade eventually gave way to more wearable styles. Surf wear and beach-inspired fashions were trendy with teenage shoppers who grew loyal to brands like Billabong, Quicksilver and Roxy, all still popular today.

With sparkling blue water and endless stretches of clean, white sand, Australia is a nation of beach lovers. From Bondi to Whitehaven Beach, there is a wide range of swimwear on display. Board shorts – or ‘boardies’ as they are affectionately known – are very popular with Australians. Worn by both genders, boardies are a summer time essential for consumers of all ages.

Australian swimwear is just as controversial as it ever has been. This season has seen some interesting swimwear trends emerge from the international runways. Bright colours, such as 80’s-inspired neon shades, are very fashionable. At the other end of the spectrum, the monochromatic look features sophisticated black and white patterns. This may be a subtle flashback to the stark, bold stripes of 1920’s swimwear. Only this time, thankfully, there is not an ounce of soggy wool anywhere in sight.

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January 18, 2019, 3:34 AM AEDT