1940s bathing suits, like many other clothing items, were also losing their modesty. The ’40s was the era when the midriff was born, and it was shown in swimsuits as well as playsuits. 1940s swimsuits were tight, unlike the suits of previous eras.
One-piece swimsuits were still popular, but the new two-piece suit had plenty of fans, too. The materials used to make swimsuits today were not invented yet, so suits were made from rayon, jersey, and rayon-jersey blends with knit cotton linings. Many suits had accent panels of a velvet-like rayon velour. Some also featured ruching on the front or side panels that were both pretty and figure flattering.
1940s swimwear featured stretchy control panels in the stomach made from a new type of material called lastex, and bra cups in the bust to keep the figure looking good in the revealing (by ’40s standards of course) bathing suits. Any color could be found on a swimsuit, but patriotic colors were popular as well as floral patterns and polka dots. Suits fastened with small buttons or metal zippers in the back.
Learn about men’s swimsuits here.
1940s One Piece Swimsuit
The one-piece swimsuit looked like a very tight, short dress. Cleavage still wasn’t shown in swimwear, so the V top was just high enough with thin straps. The bra top resembled a full-coverage bra, and the suit then extended down into a tight ‘skirt’ that would cover the backside completely. Skirts were either snug fitting around the hips and thighs or loose, called “swing skirts.”
The back of the suit would be even with the under-bust line. Some zipped all the way up the back for full coverage, while others tied the bra top around the back, leaving a gap between the bra and the bathing suit waist. The one-piece offered plenty of shaping, and sometimes had boning in the stomach area to offer additional support. A halter top was also popular – the suit would look the same except the straps tied at the neck. A new feature of some one-pieces bared a little bit of skin – a small triangle of fabric would be cut out underneath the bust to show some skin (always above the navel).
1940s Bikini or Two Piece Bathing Suit
The bikini was officially invented in 1946 and named after the Bikini Atoll in the south Pacific, where the U.S. performed nuclear tests. This suit was tiny, revealing the belly button and buttocks (gasp!). It was essentially a string bikini. Most public beaches banned the use of this new tiny swimsuit till the ’50s. However, this wasn’t the style of two-piece that was usually worn in the ’40s – it was a little bit too revealing.
Before the bikini, women started wearing two-piece swimsuits that looked just like one-piece bathing suits cut in half. The top was a full-coverage bra top, either with two thin straps or a halter top. The bottom looked like a tight mini-skirt, starting from the waistline and covering the entire backside. Another popular style of skirt for the two-piece was a flared skirt bottom of the same length. A top that started to gain in popularity was even more revealing – a bandeau top with strings attached to the center front that tied at the neck.
By the late 1940s, one and two piece swimsuits were losing even more modesty. The strapless two piece was especially popular to those brave enough to wear them. By the 1950s, nearly all swimsuits were strapless. More boning and lastix was needed to keep their shape and hold the girls in place. Needless to say, vintage swimsuits of the ’40s and ’50s were hardly used for vigorous swimming. A lazy day at the beach or pool was their best use.
1940s Style Swimsuits Today
1940s vintage bathing suits can be uncomfortable compared to modern fits and fabrics. Thankfully, most reproduction swimsuits are made of modern Lycra material and refitted with modern construction techniques. The overall look is similar to the 1940s style, although I find most repro swimsuits favor the classic ’50s style instead. For a more genuine ’40s bathing suits style look, for their defining characteristics:
- 1940s Bathing suit with a “skirt” bottom that extends all the way around. Many “skirt” suits are only skirted in the front.
- Tops in the bandeau style, halter top, or modest bra top. Avoid strapless or anything “too revealing.”
- Ruching – Many modern swimsuits today have rediscovered the amazing slimming effects of ruching. Most swimsuits with ruching automatically have a ’40s flair to them, AND they look great on all body types.
- Simple patterns. Polka dots, tropical floral prints, stripes and some color blocking were all in style in the ’40s. Avoid any print that is “too busy.” 1940s bathing suit patterns were minimalist. Any print that you think is “cute” such as cherries or little animals is more of a ’50s style.
- For a pin up worthy look, be sure to add a pair of high heel wedges or peep toes, a floppy hat, and fabulous vintage sunglasses.
1940s Style Swimsuits for Sale:
Debbie Sessions has been teaching fashion history and helping people dress for vintage themed events since 2009. She has turned a hobby into VintageDancer.com with hundreds of well researched articles and hand picked links to vintage inspired clothing online. She aims to make dressing accurately (or not) an affordable option for all. Oh, and she dances too.