Swimwear Fabrics Past & Present

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Published: 12th October 2012
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Rather unsurprisingly the swimwear fabric of choice in early centuries was nothing at all. The Romans and the Greeks swam in the nude and this trend continued for hundreds of years. Men swam in the nude until it was banned in 1860, soon after this swimming ‘drawers’ came into use with one man describing his bathing costume as ‘a pair of very short red and white striped drawers’. Women from the 17th century onwards tended to do the majority of their bathing in the baths or spas, and did so separately from the men. They may have originally bathed in the nude but by the later part of the 17th century they were wearing bathing costumes. While the men wore drawers and waistcoats, women wore long bathing outfits that one observer described as made ‘of a fine yellow canvas’ that is lifted by the water ‘so that it is borne off that your shape is not seen’.

Through the 19th century bathing costumes were geared towards modesty, especially in the case of women. As a result the majority of swimwear was long and figure-covering to avoid displaying any ‘racy’ body parts such as legs or ankles. Bathing wear was usually made from wool or flannel as they were both fairly thick fabrics and made it easy to conceal body shapes. The reasoning behind the use of these fabrics, however, was two-fold. As well as preserving modesty, it was believed that the heavier fabrics like wool and flannel would protect from the cold, a factor especially important in the chilly English seas. This trend of using wool continued into the early twentieth century. It was believed to be the best option for swimwear as it was durable and was resilient against dirt. One advertisement in 1908 claimed that mohair was the ideal material for a swimsuit because it ‘sheds water well and does not cling to the figure’.

The 1920s were probably the first decade in the twentieth century to see big changes in the design and fabrics of swimsuits. In the early years wool remained a popular choice with many women sporting figure hugging wool-jersey sleeveless tank-suits. However by 1925 things began to change. A stretchy textile called Lastex was introduced. The textile was a type of two-way stretching yarn that had an elastic core wound around cotton or silk threads. It became hugely popular and was referred to as the ‘miracle fibre’. Cotton and Lastex swimsuits replaced the heavy wool swimsuits of previous years. Swimwear became much more light-weight and much more form-fitting as a result.

The use of Lastex continued through the 1930s and into the early 1950s. There were some problems with the ‘miracle fibre’ – it didn’t maintain its shape and wasn’t colour-fast, swimwear needed something new. Nylon was first commercially produced by DuPont in 1939. The material was made completely from petrochemicals and brought new life and flexibility into swimwear. Form-fitting, stretchy swimsuit could now be achieved much easier. The new revealing swimsuits of the 1940s led corset manufacturers down the swimwear route. They added elements to improve and hide faults in a woman’s shape. These included stretch control panels, bra cups and boning to give support and shape. Swimwear fabrics improved again with the introduction of spandex in 1958 (marketed in 1962 by DuPont as Lycra) that further improved the elasticity and form-fitting nature of swimwear.

Since the 1960s, though the styles have changed, the main materials used in swimwear underwent very few changes. The 1980s and 90s saw a brief trend for a newly developed ‘tan through’ swim-wear fabric that would allow an all over tan without having to completely expose yourself. However, worries and warnings about skin cancer soon reduced their popularity.

The most recent change to swimwear fabrics has been the improvement of high-technology swimwear, used in competitive swimming. Hi-tech swimwear usually has features that will reduce drag and therefore help to improve speed. Swimwear that features these hi-tech elements usually mimics marine animal skin and try to reduce the amount of water absorbed by the swimsuit. One swimsuit is modelled after shark’s skin and has triangular projections that cause the water to spiral off. Many of these suits have helped athletes to break records as their technology appears to improve speed. Polyurethane panels cut down on drag and material that squeezes swimmers into the right swimming shape prevents skin from causing too much resistance.

These suits have, however, had a fair share of controversy with some competitors and observers pointing out that the suits could be considered ‘technological doping’. Some manufacturers began to make whole swimsuits out of polyurethane and observers became suspicious that pockets of air were being trapped under the suit, giving some swimmers an unfair advantage. The Federation Internationale de Natation or FINA – the official governing body for aquatic sports – introduced new rules in 2010 that swimwear used in competitive swimming had to be made from textiles and without coatings. Though these hi-tech suits were effectively banned, developments in swimwear fabrics and technologies are likely to continue in the future.

© Izzy Evans 2012


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