The different types of retro swimwear can be categorized in decades, starting as early as the 1910s. Swimsuits were once called “bathing gowns” in the 1860s because they were heavy dresses worn over a pair of trousers and an extra pair of leggings. As the decades progressed, swimsuits were made with less and less clothing, from skirted and ruffled swimsuits to the bikinis and two-piece swimsuits that evolved later.
One type of retro swimwear is the “dressmaker,” which was introduced in the late 1910s. The swimsuit consisted of a knee-high dress over a pair over bloomers. Women during that time were not allowed to show off their legs, so a pair of black stockings was also worn under the bloomers. Soon in the 1920s, the retro beachwear featured a lower neckline and a shorter hemline, until the stockings were finally removed, though shorter bloomers were still worn.
In the 1930s, the dressmaker evolved into tighter one-piece swimwear called the “maillot.” The maillot featured a backless style with a mid-thigh hemline, though necklines were still conservative. The sleeves were also removed, replaced by larger armholes that showed off more skin.
It probably was no coincidence that skimpier retro swimwear began surfacing during the Depression, when there was a shortage of fabric materials. Swimsuits were still made as one piece, but they showed off a triangular pattern cut out from the midriff section. Navels were still hidden because it was indecent to show them off during the time. Soon after, swimsuits were made in two pieces, with a high-waisted bottom that still concealed the navel.
After the Depression, another form of retro swimwear became popular: the diaper swimsuit. The beachwear, designed by Claire McCardell consisted of sack-like clothing with a longer tail at the back. The tail is then pulled in front and tied tightly around the waist, just like a diaper. The style of the swimsuit was carried over when two-piece swimsuits became more popular. The top part became strapless, and the high-waisted bottoms, which featured a much shorter hemline, still resembled a diaper.
In the 1950s, retro swimwear reverted to its conservative look with the popularity of the romper and the bubble suit, one-piece suits featuring a poofy design around the hips. Fashion designer Rudi Gernreich advanced towards skimpy swimsuits when, in the 1960s, he designed the topless monokini, a one-piece high-waisted suit that fully exposed the breasts. He then went on to design the tanga thong in the 1970s, the first version of the modern-day bikini.