How Swimsuits Evolved From Wool Dresses To Exotic, Itsy-Bitsy Bikinis

The history of American social mores is woven into swimwear--shrinking from full-body dresses to today's African inspiration.

1910s Knee-length wool dresses
With attached tights! Culture is so skin-averse, women literally drown under the clothing's weight.

1920s The shrinking begins
Ribbed-knit swimwear debuts with a short skirt. Women cover their ankles to comply with modesty laws permitting just 9 inches of bare leg

1940s A two-piece for wartime
World War II's parachutes and army uniforms mean less fabric for everyone else. The two-piece debuts, saving cloth from the middle.

1950s Speedos for all
The nylon suit debuts in the Olympic pool (previously, swimmers wore heavy wool and cotton). Regular beachgoers follow..

1960s Itsy-bitsy bikini
Women's lib prompts a backlash against bosomy designs. Bikini bottoms slip below the pubic bone, side straps shrink, and the bra cups separate.

1980s Get in show-off shape
Aided by Jane Fonda's aerobics videos, women go gym-crazy. Swimwear responds with racerbacks, to highlight sculpted backs and shoulders.

1990s Athletics keep winning
Beach volleyball becomes an Olympic sport, and Gabrielle Reece's halter bikini starts a nationwide trend.

A tie-dyed look from Bantu's spring/summer collection. ($156, bantuwax.com)

Today International flavor
As Americans lust after exotic beaches, Africa becomes a place of swimsuit inspira-tion. "So many people have only negative connotations of the continent--blood diamonds, AIDS, famine," says Yodit Eklund, a 27-year-old designer who lived in six African nations as a child. "I wanted them to think about the beauty here." She launched Bantu in 2008. Prints inspired by traditional wax cloth fabrics are manufactured using local materials and labor, and are sold at high-end spots such as Barneys. (An online Bantu boutique opened this year.) Says Eklund, "I hope people are happy to wear something more meaningful than Billabong."

Photos by keystone/getty images (1950s); Michael ochs archives/getty images (1960s); Getty images (1990s); Flickr user toymaster (1940s)

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