Swimwear is clothing designed to be worn by people engaging in a water-based activity or water sports, such as swimming, diving and surfing, or sun-orientated activities, such as sun bathing. Different types might be worn by men, women, and children. Swimwear is described by a number of names, a few of which are used only in particular locations, including swimsuit, bathing suit, swimming costume, bathing costume, swimming suit, swimmers, swimming togs, bathers, cossie (short for "costume"), or swimming trunks for men, besides others.

A swimsuit can be worn as an undergarment in sports that require a wetsuit such as water skiing, scuba diving, surfing, and wakeboarding. Swimsuits might additionally be worn to display the wearer's physical attributes, as in the case of beauty pageants or bodybuilding contests, and glamour photography and magazines like the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue feature models and sports personalities in swimsuits.

There is a quite wide range of styles of modern swimsuits available, which vary as to body coverage and materials. The choice of style might depend on community standards of modesty, as well as current fashions, and personal preferences. The choice will additionally consider the occasion, for example whether it is to be worn for a passive occasion such as sunbathing or for an activity such as surfing or competition. Swimwear for men usually exposes the chest, while suits for women usually cover at least the breasts.

Materials

Rayon was used in the 1920s in the manufacture of tight-fitting swimsuits, but its durability, especially when wet, proved problematic, with jersey and silk additionally at times being used.

In the 1930s, new materials were being developed and use in swimwear, particularly latex and nylon, and swimsuits gradually began hugging the body, especially women's swimsuits.

Swimsuit styles

In western culture, men's swimsuit styles include boardshorts, jammers, swim trunks, briefs or "speedos", thongs, and g-strings, in order of decreasing lower body coverage.

Women's swimsuits are generally described as one-piece, bikinis, or thongs. While they go through a large number of trends in pattern, length and cut there isn't much modification to the original variety of suit. A recent innovation is the burqini, favoured by a few Muslim women, which covers the whole body and head (but not face) in a manner similar to a diver's wetsuit. These are an updated version of full-body swimwear, which has been available for centuries, but conforms with Islam's traditional emphasis on modest dress. In Egypt, the term "Sharia swimsuit" is used to describe full-body swimwear.

Unisex styles

NameImageDescription
BoardshortsBoardshorts are a longer version of trunks that come to or past the knee. They usually have a non-elastic waistband, and will give a tight fit around the torso. Boardshorts were originally developed for various "board sports" such as surfing, paddleboarding, Wakeboarding. The looser fitting design provided less material that could catch as one mounted their board.
Rash guard
(also known as rash waistcoat or rashie)
A type of athletic shirt made of spandex and nylon or polyester. Rash guards might be worn as an alternative to wetsuits throughout warmer weather. They might additionally offer UV protection.
Wetsuit and Dry suitWetsuits and drysuits are insulated, close fitting suits designed for prolonged immersion, usually in the context of snorkeling, scuba diving, or surfing, and additional water boardsports. Made from neoprene, they come in different thicknesses and styles depending on the user's interests.
Drag suitsA pair of shorts or any loose shirts worn over a swimmer's inner swimsuit to increase resistance against the water and build up the swimmer's endurance.
Racing suitsSwimsuits made of technologically advanced fabrics biomimetically designed with a surface that mimics the rough shark denticles to reduce drag along key areas of the body. The characteristics of the fabric improve shape retention and increase muscle compression to reduce vibration and retain muscle shape to reduce fatigue and power loss. Available in a variety of cuts such as bodyskin, legskin and kneeskin.

Women's swimsuits

NameImageDescription
One-piece
(also known as tank suit, maillot)
Probably the most common form of one-piece swimsuit, the tank suit form is the inspiration for the tank top as a mainstream article of clothing. The name "tank suit" is additionally supposed to be derived from the term "swimming tank", an obsolete term for what's now called a swimming pool.
Bikini
(also known as two piece)
One piece covers the breasts, the additional the groin and buttocks, leaving an uncovered area between the two. Bikinis are available in stylistic variations. (see Bikini variants)
MicrokiniA microkini, including subgenres like minikini, minimini and tear-drop, is an extremely meagre bikini.
Tankini
(also known as two piece)
Two piece covers the breasts and stomach (like a tank top), the additional the crotch and buttocks. Leaves a small gap in between the belly button and the hips, available in stylistic variations.
Monokini
(also known as a topless swimsuit or unikini)

One piece swimsuit covers the crotch and buttocks, available in stylistic variations and generally refers to a bikini bottom or thong worn alone without a top.

BurqiniCovers the whole body and head (but not face) in a manner similar to a diver's wetsuit.
TrikiniThe name of this woman's bathing suit is formed from the word "bikini", replacing "bi-", meaning "two", with "tri-", meaning "three".

Men's swimsuits

NameImageDescription
Swim briefs
(also known as racing briefs, speedos, competition briefs, bathers, racer bathers, trunks)
Swim briefs, often made of wool and held in place with a military-style canvas belt at the waist, go back at least to the 1930s. They can be seen in hundreds of print ads, worn by muscleman Charles Atlas, and were quite popular. Although in a style that today appears similar to underwear briefs, it is likely that the swimwear preceded the underwear, A nylon version (without the belt), pictured at left, was launched at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics by Speedo. Swim briefs are now often made of a nylon and spandex composite, while a few longer lasting suits are made from polyester. The style varies from a full seat to thong or g-string. Most swim briefs have a beige or white lining on the inside front made of a similar fabric.
Trunks
(also known as boardshorts in Australia or shorts in UK)
In the US, this describes a loose, mid-thigh style of swimwear, made of one hundred percent polyester or one hundred percent nylon fabric. They are usually shorter than boardshorts but longer than boxer shorts. They feature a polyester liner inside the shorts. Although trunks have been used as swimwear after the 1940s, their heyday was in 1990s when they were highly popularised thanks in part to TV shows like Baywatch. Today, they have been eclipsed by boardshorts among teenagers and young adults. They remain the norm with older age groups and young children.

In additional cultures (particularly the UK) the term 'trunks' is used to describe swim briefs, although it has been increasingly common for any men's swimwear to be generically described as 'trunks'.

Square Cut Swim TrunksA swimwear style similar to swim briefs, but with a more conservative cut. They can be compared to boxer briefs but with nylon/spandex composite or polyester fabric.
JammerA type of men's swimwear worn primarily by competitive athletes, somewhat resembling cycling shorts or compression shorts.

Body coverage

Swimsuits can be skin-tight or loose-fitting. They are often lined with another layer of fabric if the outer fabric becomes transparent when wet.

Swimsuits range from designs that almost completely cover the body to designs that expose almost all of the body. The choice of swimsuit will depend on personal and community standards of modesty and on considerations such as how much or how little sun protection is desired, and prevailing fashions. Almost all swimsuits cover the genitals and pubic hair, while most except thongs or G-string cover much or all of the buttocks.

Most swimsuits in western culture leave at least the head, shoulders, arms, and lower part of the leg (below the knee) exposed. Women's swimsuits generally cover at least the aereola and bottom half of the breasts, but a few are designed for the top part of the swimsuit to be removed. In a large number of countries, young girls and at times women choose not to wear a swimsuit top, and this can vary with the occasion, location, age, etc.

Both men and women might at times wear swimsuits covering more of the body when swimming in cold water (see additionally wetsuit and dry suit). In colder temperatures, the swimwear is needed to conserve body heat and protect the body core from hypothermia.

Competitive swimwear

American swimmer Conor Dwyer at the 200m freestyle semi-final in Kazan.

Competitive swimwear generally refers to the swimsuit, clothing, equipment and accessories used in the aquatic sports of swimming, diving, synchronized swimming, triathlon and water polo.

Some swimsuits are designed specifically for swimming competitions where they might be constructed of a special low resistance fabric that reduces skin drag. For a few kinds of swimming and diving, special bodysuits called "diveskins" are worn. These suits are made from spandex and provide little thermal protection, but they do protect the skin from stings and abrasion. Most competitive swimmers additionally wear special swimsuits including partial bodysuits, racerback styles, jammers and racing briefs to assist their glide through the water thus gaining a speed advantage.

Unlike regular swimsuits, which are designed mainly for the aesthetic appearances, swimsuits designed to be worn throughout competitions are manufactured to assist the athlete in swim competitions. They reduce friction and drag in the water, increasing the efficiency of the swimmer's forward motion. The tight fits allow for easy movement and are said to reduce muscle vibration, thus reducing drag. This additionally reduces the possibility that a high forwards dive will remove a divers swimwear. Starting around 2000, in an effort to improve the effectiveness of the swimsuits, engineers have taken to designing them to replicate the skin of sea based animals, sharks in particular.

In July 2009, FINA voted to ban non-textile (non-woven) swimsuits in competitive events from 2010. The new policy was implemented to combat the issues associated with performance enhancing costumes, hindering the ability to accurately measure the performance of swimmers. Subsequently, the new ruling states that men's swimsuits might maximally cover the area from the navel to the knee, and women's' counterparts from the shoulder to the knee.

Some swimmers use a specialised training suit called drag suits to artificially increase drag throughout practice. Drag suits are swimwear with an outer layer of looser fabric – often mesh or nylon – to increase resistance against the water and build up the swimmer's endurance. They come in a variety of styles, but most resemble a looser fitting square-cut or swim brief.


Swimwear and hygiene

Germs, bacteria, and mould can grow quite quickly on wet bathing suits. Medical professionals warn that wearing damp swimwear for long periods of time can cause a number of infections and rashes in children and adults, and warn against sharing bathing suits with others. They suggest that changing out of a wet bathing suit right away can help prevent vaginal infections and itching in females and Tinea Cruris ("Jock Itch") in males.

In public swimming pools in France for reasons of hygiene, it is only permitted to wear closer fitting styles of swimwear. Men, for instance, must wear "Speedo" style bathing suits and not baggy shorts or trunks.

History

Pre-20th century

1858 Woman's bathing suit

In classical antiquity swimming and bathing were done naked. There are Roman murals which show women playing sports and exercising wearing two-piece suits covering the areas around their breasts and hips in a fashion remarkably similar to the present-day bikini. Notwithstanding there's no evidence that they were used for swimming. All classical pictures of swimming show nude swimmers.

In various cultural traditions one swims, if not in the nude, in a version in suitable material of a garment or undergarment commonly worn on land, e.g. a loincloth such as the Japanese man's fundoshi.

In the United Kingdom until the mid-19th century there was no law against nude swimming, and each town was free to make its own laws. For example, the Bath Corporation official bathing dress code of 1737 prescribed, for men:

It is Ordered Established and Decreed by this Corporation that no Male person above the age of ten years shall at any time hereafter go into any Bath or Baths within this City by day or by night without a Pair of Drawers and a Waistcoat on their bodies.

In rivers, lakes, streams and the sea men swam in the nude, where the practise was common. Those who didn't swim in the nude, stripped to their underwear. The English practise of men swimming in the nude was banned in the United Kingdom in 1860. Drawers, or caleçons as they were called, came into use in the 1860s. Even then there were a large number of who protested against them and wanted to remain in the nude. Francis Kilvert described men's bathing suits coming into use in the 1870s as "a pair of quite short red and white striped drawers".

Cartoon by George du Maurier in Punch, 1877, showing men's and children's bathing suits

Female bathing costumes were derived from those worn at Bath and additional spas. It would appear that until the 1670s nude female bathing in the spas was the norm and that after that time women bathed clothed. Celia Fiennes gave a detailed description of the standard ladies' bathing costume in 1687:

The Ladyes go into the bath with Garments made of a fine yellow canvas, which is stiff and made large with great sleeves like a parson’s gown; the water fills it up so that it is borne off that your shape isn't seen, it doesn't cling close as additional linning, which Lookes sadly in the poorer sort that go in their own linning. The Gentlemen have drawers and wastcoates of the same sort of canvas, this is the best linning, for the bath water will Change any additional yellow.

The Bath Corporation official bathing dress code of 1737 prescribed, for women:

No Female person shall at any time hereafter go into a Bath or Baths within this City by day or by night without a decent Shift on their bodies.

The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker was published in 1771 and its description of ladies’ bathing costume is different from that of Celia Fiennes a hundred years earlier:

The ladies wear jackets and petticoats of brown linen, with chip hats, in which they fix their handkerchiefs to wipe the sweat from their faces; but, truly, whether it is owing to the steam that surrounds them, or the heat of the water, or the nature of the dress, or to all these causes together, they look so flushed, and so frightful, that I always turn my eyes another way.

Penelope Byrde points out that Smollett’s description might not be accurate, for he describes a two-piece costume, not the one piece shift or smock that most people describe and is depicted in contemporary prints. His description does, however, tally with Elizabeth Grant’s description of the guide’s costume at Ramsgate in 1811. The only difference is in the fabric the costumes are made of. Flannel, however, was a common fabric for sea bathing costumes as a large number of believed the warmer fabric was necessary in cold water.

In the eighteenth century women wore "bathing gowns" in the water; these were long dresses of fabrics that wouldn't become transparent when wet, with weights sewn into the hems so that they wouldn't rise up in the water. The men's swim suit, a rather form-fitting wool garment with long sleeves and legs similar to long underwear, was developed and would change little for a century.

In the nineteenth century, the woman's double suit was common, comprising a gown from shoulder to knees plus a set of trousers with leggings going down to the ankles.

In the Victorian era, popular beach resorts were commonly equipped with bathing machines designed to avoid the exposure of people in swimsuits, especially to people of the opposite sex.

In the United States, beauty pageants of women in bathing costumes became popular from the 1880s. Notwithstanding such events weren't regarded as respectable. Beauty contests became more respectable with the first modern "Miss America" contest held in 1921, though less respectable beauty contests continued to be held.

20th century

Annette Kellerman in her one-piece bathing suit
Man and woman in swimsuits, c.1910; she's exiting a bathing machine

In 1907, the swimmer Annette Kellerman from Australia visited the United States as an "underwater ballerina", a version of synchronized swimming involving diving into glass tanks. She was arrested for indecent exposure because her swimsuit showed arms, legs and the neck. Kellerman changed the suit to have long arms and legs and a collar, still keeping the close fit that revealed the shapes underneath. She later starred in several movies, including one about her life. She marketed a line of bathing suits and her style of one-piece suits came to be known as "the Annette Kellerman". The Annette Kellerman was considered the most offensive style of swimsuit in the 1920s and became the focus of censorship efforts.

Despite opposition from a few groups, the form-fitting style proved popular. It wasn't long before swimwear started to shrink further. At first arms were exposed and then legs up to mid-thigh. Necklines receded from around the neck down to around the top of the bosom. The development of new fabrics allowed for new varieties of more comfortable and practical swimwear.

Due to the figure-hugging nature of these garments, glamour photography after the 1940s and 1950s has often featured people wearing swimsuits. This type of glamour photography eventually evolved into swimsuit photography exemplified by the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Beauty contests additionally required contestants to wear form-fitting swimsuits.

The first bikinis appeared just after World War II. Early examples weren't quite different from the women's two pieces common after the 1920s, except that they had a gap below the breast line allowing for a section of bare midriff. They were named after Bikini Atoll, the site of several nuclear weapons tests, for their supposed explosive effect on the viewer.

Through the 1950s, it was thought proper for the lower part of the bikini to come up high enough to cover the navel. From the 1960s on, the bikini shrank in all directions until it at times covered little more than the nipples and genitalia, although less revealing models giving more support to the breasts remained popular. At the same time, fashion designer Rudi Gernreich introduced the monokini, a topless suit for women consisting of a modest bottom supported by two thin straps. Although not a commercial success, the suit opened eyes to new design possibilities. In the 1980s the thong or "tanga" came out of Brazil, said to have been inspired by traditional garments of native tribes in the Amazon. Notwithstanding the one-piece suit continued to be popular for its more modest approach.

Men's swimsuits developed roughly in parallel to women's throughout this period, with the shorts covering progressively less. Eventually racing-style "speedo" suits became popular—and not just for their speed advantages. Thongs, G-strings, and bikini style suits are additionally worn. Typically these are more popular in more tropical regions; however, they might additionally be worn at public swimming pools and inland lakes. But in the 1990s, longer and baggier shorts became popular, with the hems often reaching to the knees. Often called boardshorts and swim trunks, these were often worn lower on the hips than regular shorts.

Alternatives to swimsuits

Since the early twentieth century a naturist movement has developed in western countries that seeks a return to non-sexual nakedness when swimming and throughout additional appropriate activities. Some women prefer to engage in water or sun activities with their torso uncovered. The practise is often described as "toplessness" or "topfreedom". In a few places around the world, nude beaches have been set aside for people who choose to engage in normal beach activities in the nude.

As an alternative to a swimsuit, a few people wear trousers, underpants or a T-shirt either as a makeshift swimsuit or because they prefer regular clothes over swimsuits. Using a T-shirt can additionally provide additional protection against sunburn. In a few countries, such as Thailand and Philippines, swimming in regular clothes is the norm while swimsuits are rare. At beaches, this might be more accepted than at swimming pools, which tend not to permit the use of underwear as swimwear because underwear is unlined, might become translucent, and might be perceived as unclean.