First released in June 1960, at a time when bikinis were still considered as risqué, the song Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini is credited with helping to make the garment more socially acceptable.
The modern bikini was launched in 1946, when two French designers produced two-piece swimsuit ranges, although illustrations can be found in a number of locations showing women from Roman times wearing bikini-like garments for athletic competitions. An increasing number of glamour shots of actresses in bikinis in the 1950s did much to make the bikini popular, as did the appearance of the teenage Brigitte Bardot in Manina, la fille sans voiles (released in March 1953). Following the appearance of Ursula Andress in a white bikini in the 1962 Bond Film Dr No, the popularity of the bikini became assured.The bikini marked a very long way forward from the serge, flannel and eventually wool long-sleeved nineteenth-century bathing dresses designed to preserve decency. Double suits were common, with a gown from shoulder to knee plus a set of trousers with leggings down to the ankles. As the century progressed ankle-length drawers replaced trousers as the bottom half of the ensemble, the top became hip length, the bottoms were shortened to knee length and both became more fitted.
As well as modest bathing costumes for women, bathing machines were developed as changing rooms on wheels. These enabled the machines to be pulled by horses into the sea, thus allowing women to enter the water without showing their bathing costume.
Queen Victoria had a bathing machine at the beach near Osborne House, Isle of Wight, where she and her family spent their summers. In her journal of 30 July 1847 she notes her first experience of sea bathing:
“Drove to the beach with my maids and went in the bathing machine, where I undressed and bathed in the sea (for the 1st time in my life)… I thought it delightful till I put my head under water…”
With the dawn of the twentieth century, the yards of fabric used in Victorian bathing suits for women — which could be up to 9 yards of material — was reduced, allowing costumes to show a little more of their figures.The year after the 1912 summer Olympics, when female swimming debuted and women wore costumes similar to those worn by the men, the designer Carl Jantzen produced swimwear that was a close fitting one-piece with short sleeves and shorts on the bottom.
Swimwear continued to evolve, new designs assisted by the development of manmade fibres and synthetics. In the 1930s, the tank suit, or maillot, became popular.As swimwear developed in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, it followed the silhouette more closely. Cutaway swimsuits became popular in the 1970s and 1980s, inspired by the fitness regimes of the period.
Whilst swimming costumes might be bought, suits also were hand knitted at home. This seems to have been particularly popular between the 1930s and 1950s, although there are patterns available from the 1900s. Later patterns include those for the crocheted cotton bikini of the 1970s, which had the unfortunate habit of stretching when wet.Possibly destined never to test whether it would stretch if it became wet, this striking yellow bikini from the Montse Stanley Collection at Southampton was a garment designed to look elegant and bring a little glamour and style to the beach.
As well as the knitted swimwear, the Montse Stanley Collection also contains a selection of French and English seaside postcards and photographs featuring swimwear, ranging from bathers at the beach to some of those glamour shots of film stars. Montse Stanley was enthusiastic for all aspects of the history of knitting, a fact reflected in the impressive array of materials that form her collection. The collection that is a rich resource for anyone interested in the creative possibilities of knitting.