It’s 60 years this year since the bikini became the fashion icon and summer mainstay that it is today. To celebrate this landmark birthday, we sent blogger Emma Gannon to meet fashion historian Amber Butchart for a chat about swimwear past, present and future.
Sixty years ago this year, the bikini cemented its indelible place in mainstream fashion. It took until the mid-1950s to properly catch on, but once it did, there was no looking back. Now, it’s hard to imagine a world without bikinis! When it comes to beach fashion, nothing else comes close. Swimwear, in all its incarnations, has become possibly more iconic than any other item of clothing. It’s impossible to mention the word ‘bikini’ and not see Ursula Andress coming out of the sea in that white two piece in Dr No, a bikini that would later sell at auction for £35,000.
We sent fashion blogger and author Emma Gannon (of Girl Lost In The City) to meet fashion historian Amber Butchart for a chat about the history of swimwear and what’s in for this summer.
Emma: Looking back over the decades, or even centuries, what trends have you noticed keep circling back round again?
Amber: Throughout the 20th century it’s always been about less and less and wearing the smallest clothes possible. The moral compass around what’s acceptable to wear in public shifts. The pinnacle of that would be the very high cut, very sporty swimwear of the 80s (bottom right), which was all about the ‘gym body’. Before that you had the monokini created by Rudi Gernreich in the late 60s, a topless swimsuit, which is obviously quite extreme!
Emma: Which styles are you happiest about making a comeback?
Amber: Well, I’ve been quite happy recently with the resurgence of the mid-century high-waisted bikini that’s a little longer in the leg (left). I like it; there’s so much body maintenance that goes hand-in-hand with wearing swimwear and I feel like you don’t have to go quite so crazy with it if you’re wearing a longer leg [laughs].
Emma: Do current high street clothes trends reflect in swimwear?
Amber: I think it works in two ways: print and colour. The fashion press love talking about the “era” of the moment. Like the 70s have been big recently and translate well into swimwear, you get this Studio 54 meets St Tropez look, which works well for a more luxurious and glamorous type of swimwear (top right).
Emma: We all have our favourite clothes in our wardrobe. Should we perhaps have our old favourites when it comes to swimwear too?
Amber: I think so. The older I’ve got, the more I feel comfortable in what suits me. When I was younger, I was much happier taking risks. But then you become more comfortable with yourself.
Emma: Do you still experiment and get more adventurous in other ways?
Amber: I enjoy a more classic style, but I’m happy to go bold when it comes to colours and prints. Some designs can be very strappy and look amazing but maybe not totally practical with tan lines. I like sticking to classic shapes and then I can go totally crazy with prints. If you can’t go totally crazy with prints with your swimwear, then when can you?
Emma: Your second book is about film and fashion. Are there any iconic swimwear scenes from movies that you love?
Amber: There’s quite an interesting relationship between swimwear and film, because swimwear has always been a way that you can legitimately put women in less clothing on screen – Marilyn Monroe and Ursula Andress, for example. But even earlier than that, there was an amazing woman called Annette Kellerman (right) who was a champion swimmer from Australia – she’s often credited as the woman who invented synchronised swimming. She became one of the first swimming movie stars in the early 1900s. She was quite instrumental to the development of swimwear and was actually arrested for indecency on a beach in 1907 because she was wearing a full body stocking!
Emma: Finally, let’s talk accessories. Earrings, hats, sunglasses, sarongs?
Amber: There’s definitely something very chic about accessorising swimwear and being able to pull it off. And something quite ‘New England socialite’ about being able to lounge around the pool wearing mules and loads of bangles. Obviously I’m a big fan of the turban; there are some great towelling turbans, so when you get out of the sea you can wrap your hair up – it can look very glamorous. I also love swim caps; British Pathé have a really fantastic fashion YouTube channel with old news reels and I remember seeing one from the 50s where they had a swimwear fashion show and some of the swim caps were amazing. You can get incredible floral ones and even ones with a fake fringe! I think they need to make a comeback.
Emma: What about big hats? Can they make a comeback too?
Amber: Big hats are bold but also very practical. What I love about some of these old styles is they do have an element of practicality. There are some beautiful mid-century photographs by an American photographer called Louise Dahl-Wolfe. She captured women in a very active way and she has some great photographs of women in huge sun hats. The other accessory of course is the 1920s look of wearing pearls at the beach – very Chanel!
Emma: So cool, but oh god, the tan-lines again.
Amber: [Laughs] Yes, maybe a more aprés-sun look.
Here are Amber’s picks from the George swimwear collection for this summer: