As debate rages over bans imposed by French seaside towns on the burkini, Gulf News scrolls back through history to look at the evolution of swimwear — from its basic beginnings to a glamorous display of sartorial sense. Changing social norms and stylistic trends have all contributed to the development of the suits we wear today. Here’s a look at how it all happened:

What is a burkini?

A burkini is a portmanteau word derived from the amalgamation of the burka and the bikini. It is a type of swimsuit for women, resembling a full-body wetsuit and first designed by Lebanese-born Australian fashion designer Aheda Zanetti, for Muslim women. The suit — which gained popularity around 2008 — covers the whole body except the face, the hands and the feet, while being light enough to enable swimming. The key difference between a burkini and a wetsuit is that it is somewhat looser and made of swimsuit material instead of neoprene. While Zanetti’s company Ahiida owns the trademarks to the words “burqini” and “burkini”, both words have become generic terms for modest swimwear. Notable wearers of the burkini include British journalist and food writer Nigella Lawson, who says she wears it to protect her skin, and women beach lifeguards in Australia. — Agencies


Women wear full-length, fully covered dresses that limit swimming activity to mostly wading in the water. More akin to bathing gowns than swimsuits, these dresses were a testimony to the Victorian ethos of the time, with frocks buttoned up to the neck.


The turn of the century brings new values: the heavy layers of the 19th century swimsuits are pared down to a light dress, sometimes a one-piece and Speedo combo (pictured), as sported by Geman swimmer Emil Rausch.


Swimwear pioneers Portland Knitting Company start operations in Oregon, offering a woollen bathing suit. Meanwhile Annette Kellerman, the first woman to swim across the English Channel, is arrested in Boston for wearing a one piece suit (pictured). Her bold move triggers a change in swimwear fashion.


Women were only allowed to start swimming in 1912 Olympics, and their suits were made of silk. This meant that once wet, the swimsuits became uncomfortably see-through, so female athletes had to wear underwear to preserve their dignity.


Romper suits become popular — though they looked eerily similar on men and women, as seen above as Helene Madison and Johnny Weissmuller chat at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Men’s swim briefs also gain traction.


While bathing suits start getting their signature spaghetti-strap tops, all suits look the same in the water.

The era of the bikini - 1946

The first official bikini is introduced at a poolside fashion event in Paris. Inventor Louis Réard apparently could not find a fashion model to wear it, so he hired a stripper named Micheline Bernardini. The name was inspired by the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands — the site of several nuclear weapons tests — for the swimsuit’s supposed explosive effect on the viewer. Through the next decades, from Bond girl Ursula Andress in Dr No (pictured) to French icon Brigitte Bardot, actresses play a major role in popularising the bikini on screen and off it.


The hippie era and its free-love advice helps shape the bikini into its current iconic style, with its emphasis on “the more skin, the better”.


The heydays of men’s swimming trunks begin: a loose, mid-thigh style of swimwear, made of 100% polyester or nylon fabric. Women’s bathing suits meanwhile get more risqué and colourful.

2000s and beyond

Whether it’s clumsy gowns or neoncoloured thongs, the evolution of the bathing suit is a fascinating journey of the changing social climate of our times.


In the game of marginal gains, the women’s tech suit helps athletes slice through the water. Comfort is compromised for the need for speed -that one-tenth of a second counts

Race wear


In 1956, Speedo introduced nylon into its suits, giving swimmers traction in the water. Swimwear became more streamlined through the 1960s to give swimmers free limb movement.


Elastane was introduced in the 1970s which improved swimmers’ performance cutting drag in the water. Swimmers saw success with the more compact fit.


The 1980s saw men wearing trunks that had shrunk. These tiny briefs were generically named Speedo no matter what make they were.


The 1980s was all about bettering performance. Women wore suits that fit close, making the swimmer more streamlined in water.


Change came in the 2000 Olympics. Full-body suit was introduced, ditching nylon and moving to biometric fabrics modelled on sharkskin. They were so tight that they could only be worn a few times, before they lost fit or tore.


Speedo released the LZR Elite racing suit worn by Michael Phelps. Developed in partnership with Nasa, the suit helped smash records. Banned from competitive events two years later.


Men can only wear suits which cover from the navel to the knee, and women from the knee to the shoulders. The Olympics in London and Rio have seen swimmers revert to more original suits which even out the playing field.