While the 1920s started the trend for leisure activities like swimming, it was economic changes in the 1930s that made swimming a pastime for everyone, not just those lucky enough to live near a beach. The New Deal funded community pools to open up around the country. Cheap entry prices made swimming an affordable diversion for weekend fun. For the upper class, “vacationing” to beach-side resorts via passenger ships (who had pools on board) and air travel meant there was a now a need to look good while swimming or lounging (many people who grew up away from natural water still did not know how to swim).
Yarn covered in rubber invented in 1931, Lastex, made swimwear much more comfortable and lighter to wear. Previously, all-wool swimsuits looked fine dry but sagged terribly when wet and weighed a few extra pounds, too. With less sag, thinner material, and a stiffer stretch to it, Lastex made it possible for designers to build in support for women — namely girdles and light bras. This helped women of all shapes look and feel better in swimwear. Lastex could be made of cotton or Rayon, which was also more comfortable against the skin than wool.
The silhouette of the 1930s swimsuit took on direct inspiration from men’s swimsuits (which were still one pieces). Men were encouraged to build a muscular yet lean sportsman’s body. Women also needed to slim down into an athletic body that was tall, lean, and curvy up top to flatter the latest bias cut dresses. Swimsuits were cut to show off more leg and more back skin than ever before. The thin straps also made the shoulders appear broader and more athletic. It became what we know as the swimsuit today.
Designer Jean Patou made Cuban inspired minimalist color swimsuits and bathing suits his signature. Swimsuits were for athletic swimming while bathing suits were for lounging, the latter having more support built in. In 1923, Patou invented a dyeing process that would not fade in the sun. This made it possible to introduce more colors as well as mixing colors on one suit. In the 1920s, most swimsuits were one solid color only. In the 1930s, a top half and bottom half could each be different colors or have cubist shapes stitched into (or onto) the design for even more color. Belts and decorative ties emphasized the waist. Darts and gathers were sewn in to give shape at the bust. Swimwear was now real fashion.
The biggest names in swimwear were Jantzen, of Oregon, whose logo was a red diver; Catalina and Cole — both of Los Angeles, California; and B.V.D of Ohio. Each company used Lastex, a full spectrum of colors, and various degrees of support for their swimsuits.
The two main styles of swimsuits were the maillot and the dress maker. The maillot was fitted at the torso with a tight skirt covering the crotch. Otherwise, the swimsuit was a tank top style on top and a pair of “boy shorts” at the bottom half. The dress maker was less fitted and had an A-line skirt that covered the crotch, just like in the previous decade.
Where a 1930s woman lived determined an appropriate level of modesty. New York and France were the most skin revealing, while the middle of the United States remained the most covered up. For those willing to reveal more skin, a low dipped back opening was in vogue, just like on evening gowns. The crab back (X shape or Racerback today) was another option that revealed skin to tan, but was a little more modest. Tops were still modest with a round, square, or halter neck that revealed skin but never cleavage.
The drawstring back straps and waist belt was one iconic style of the 1930s. The corded drawstring made the straps as thin as could be while they tied around the front, making it possible for women to undo the string and remove the straps for the ultimate even tan.
Going into the 1940s, the emphasis on open back was wavering in favor of more bust. Necklines were lowered to just a hint of cleavage with the V-neck being the most helpful in this regard. The beginnings of the first two piece Bikini were also on the horizon with just a piece of the front of the swimsuit cut out to reveal some skin. Big and small prints were also coming into style as inventions in materials continued to improve. Read about 1940s swimwear.
Watch this delightful video of 1930s swimsuits in color!
1930s Inspired Swimsuits
Sadly, not very many reproduction swimwear designers focus on 1930s swimsuits. Why not? I think they are adorable. This year, I have seen a few designers come out with some designs. Many of the 1950s style retro swimsuits can double for the 1930s, too, with a skirt effect (or boy shorts), modest top, and low back. Here are some of my favorites: