A swimsuit is an article of clothing used for swimming and sunbathing. For women, the swimsuit is either a two-piece bra and panty ensemble or a one-piece maillot style. Men's swimsuits are either a bikini-style brief or the longer and fuller swim trunk.


Although swimming is not a natural human ability, people have been drawn to water since ancient times. The Romans built the first swimming pools and by the first century B.C. had even created a heated pool. In Japan during this period swimming events were common. Europeans were slower to come to the sport because of a widespread fear of infections carried from other bathers through the water. However, by the mid-nineteenth century, a number of swimming organizations were founded, particularly in London.

The swimsuit as a particular article of clothing did not appear until the early twentieth century. In the late nineteenth century, bathers wore a bathing costume consisting of billowy bloomers and overblouses, stockings, and shoes. Suntans were considered a sign of low class, so many women covered their heads and faces. To many, even these body-obscuring outfits were considered shocking. Over the next several decades, the style and acceptance of bathing wear changed significantly.

At the beginning of the 1902, three young men in Oregon (John Zehntbauer, Roy Zehntbauer, and Carl Jantzen) owned a clothing company called the Portland Knitting Company. They were also avid members of a rowing club. Their financial futures were secured when one of their teammates asked them to create a wool rib-knit rowing suit that would retain body heat. Although the garment they created was not particularly suited for swimming (when wet it could weight up to 8 lb [3.6 kg]), an idea was born. The form-fitting knit suit, made by the company that would become Jantzen, featured a sleeveless shift over long shorts.

In the 1930s, sunbathing became a popular pastime. Women's styles began to feature lower-cut backs and armholes to allow more exposure to the sun. Jantzen introduced the Shouldaire model with a drawstring sewn above the bustline that allowed the wearer to lower the shoulder straps for better suntan coverage. It was also in the 1930s that women's midriffs were exposed for the first time; in cutouts and eventually in two-piece swimsuits

Manmade fabrics were introduced during this period. The evolution of the swimsuit as a form-fitting garment called for a flexible and elasticized material. Rayon was the first fabric used, and then American Rubber Company developed Lastex, an extruded rubber surrounded by fiber. Lastex's success was short-lived because it was not colorfast and did not retain shape when stretched. The fabric's flexibility was also affected by body oils.

In 1939, E. I. duPont de Nemours & Company developed a nylon called 6.6 polymer that revolutionized the manmade materials industry. In the years to come, other synthetic materials such as Dacron, Orlon, Lycra, and Spandex were invented and were used alone or blended to make swimsuits. During this period, textile manufacturers also began to experiment with woven patterns and bright colors.

The next major highlight in the history of the swimsuit occurred in 1946 when the bikini, a two-piece suit for women, was introduced in Paris. Supposedly named for the Pacific atoll where atomic bomb experiments were conducted, the bikini caused a furor. Although immediately popular on European beaches, the bikini was not worn in the United States until the 1960s.

In the 1970s, the use of materials such as Lycra became popular as a means to manipulate physical attributes. Soft one-piece maillots were popular among women and remain so today. In 1977, designer Rudi Geinrich's thong bikini, which features a mere strap on the rear portion of the suit bottom, hit the beaches of Brazil. It also remains a popular style around the world, but is often considered controversial on American beaches.

Innovations of the 1980s included suits of material that allowed the wearer to tan through the fabric. This style faded in popularity as the public became more aware of sun-related skin cancers. The French cut, leg openings high on the hip, also appeared during this decade.

In competitive swimming, the design of suits built for speed is an on-going challenge. At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, the use of a full-body suit by many swimmers caused a uproar. The Fastkin suit, made by Speedo, is constructed of a sharkskin-like material and is marketed as a performance-enhancing suit. A number of teams objected to the use of the suit and sought to have it banned. However the Olympic governing committee allowed the suits.

Raw Materials

Fabric is the primary material. Some companies manufacture their own fabric while others purchase it from outside supplies. Synthetic dyes are used to color the fabric. Until the mid-nineteenth century, dyes were extracted from animal, vegetable, and mineral sources. In 1856, a young chemist in London named William H. Perkin accidentally discovered how to make mauveine, a purple dye, while he was attempting to synthesize quinine. Dyes are applied in a variety of ways depending on the type of dye, the type of fabric, and the desired effect. In the simplest process, cloth is dipped into a solution of water and dye. Sometimes an oxygen reagent is added to make the color more uniform. In mordant dying, a wet metallic solution of tin, chromium, iron or aluminum is applied directly to the fabric. Then a dye is applied on top of that and the color is formed within the cloth. Some dyes can be applied directly to the cloth. In this process, the fabric is immersed in a hot solution of the dye. Patterns of color are created by dying fabrics that have been woven with different types of yarn such as nylon and polyester. The yarns react differently, or not at all, to different dyes. In this manner, a pattern appears on the fabric.

The bra of a bikini or two-piece woman's swimsuit may have metal or plastic fasteners. Men's swim trunks often include a drawstring in the waistband. Lengths of elastic are used for straps, leg openings, and waistbands.


Design is a crucial step in the manufacturing of swimsuits. As in any aspect of the apparel industry, designers pay close attention to what is being worn and what is new in fabric and color. Swimsuit designers are also concerned with comfort, colorfastness and elasticity of the fabric.

Designers use a combination of hand-sketches and computer-assisted-design software (CAD) to create new styles. Hand-sketches are enlarged to create paper patterns and a sample is cut from a material such as muslin. The garment is then fitted onto a mannequin and adjusted until the designer achieves the desired look. Colors and fabric are chosen and a sample is made and tried on by a human model. The designer again makes adjustments.

Designers using CAD draw with a stylus onto a digitizing pad that is connected to a computer. As the designer draws, the garment's image appears on the computer screen. Colors and fabrics can also be chosen and viewed on the computer screen. Templates are created and sent to the factory to be cut into pattern pieces.

The Manufacturing

The manufacture of swimsuits is largely a computerized and mechanized process with

The evolution of the swimsuit.
The evolution of the swimsuit.
factory workers running the machinery and occasionally guiding the fabric.

  1. Spools of cotton and synthetic thread are loaded onto knitting machines that weave the threads into rolls of fabric. The rolls are fed into large tanks fitted with agitators. Pre-measured amounts of bleach and color-dyes are released into the tanks. After the fabric has been cleaned and dyed to the desired color, it is then placed into drying machines. The fabric is re-rolled and stored until it is needed.
  2. Workers bring the bolts of fabric to spreading and measuring tables. The bolts are attached to one end of the table and the fabric is drawn across the table and wrapped around an empty bolt on the other side. The worker turns the empty bolt to take up the slack until the fabric is pulled taut across the table. The worker enters predetermined length measurements into an encoder. The encoder then relays the information to electronic blades that cut the fabric.
  3. After the entire bolt of fabric has been cut into lengths, the worker stacks them in heights up to 6 in (15 cm). He or she then takes the stacks to the piece-cutting machine. Here, another worker operates the computerized machinery that cuts the swimsuit pieces from the lengths of fabric. In smaller factories, pattern-marking may be done by hand before the fabric is cut. In larger companies, the pattern dimensions are fed into a computer that relays the information to the cutting machinery.

    The number of pieces is determined by the style of swimsuit. A woman's one-piece maillot is usually made from two pieces. A bikini would have two sections for the brief and four to six pieces for the bra. Cups for the bra and for the top of the one-piece are also cut. Lining panels are cut for the crotch and for the bodice. Men's swim trunks are constructed from two to four panels.

  4. Each piece is stitched to another at separate sewing stations. Depending on the size of the factory, the sewing is done by individual seamstresses working at industrial sewing machines, or by computerized stitching machines operated by workers. For a bikini, the bra cup is placed between the lining and the front bra panels and the three pieces are stitched together. A side panel is then stitched to each of the front panels.

    If the design calls for straps, lengths of elastic are placed between two strap pieces and the three pieces are sewn together. The straps are then sewn onto the front and side panels of the bra. If hooks are used to close the back of the bra, a metal or plastic hook is sewn or ironed into a facing on the end of one side panel. A loop is made on the other side panel by folding the end piece over and stitching it to the panel.

    Briefs, whether for a woman's two-piece suit or for a man's swim trunks, are pieced together in similar fashions. Lining is stitched into the front panel or panels. The front panel(s) are joined to the back panel(s). Lengths of elastic are inserted into waistbands and leg openings. The outer material is folded over to make a facing and the facing is then stitched to the garment.

  5. The completed garments are pressed and labels are stitched onto the inside. The swimsuits are packaged in plastic bags and loaded into cartons for shipment to retail outlets.

Quality Control

Swimsuits are subjected to a number of tests in the factory before they are sold to the public. Tests for fabric and color changes include repeated washings in fresh, salt, and chlorinated water, as well as exposure to simulated sunlight. The suits are stretched and weighted down before and after washings to determine if they retain their original shapes. Samples suits are also given to volunteer testers who report back to the companies on comfort and wearability.

By products/Waste

The primary waste products result from fabric dyeing and from the manufacture of synthetic fabrics. An entire industry dedicated to the recycling of dyes and synthetic materials now exists to serve the textile industry. Dye solutions are generally purified and reused. The residue from the manufacture of synthetic fabric are used to make other products, especially plastic bottles.

Very few waste materials exists after the sewing of the swimsuits. The computerized processes allow for precise measurement and cutting so that little excess remains. What extraneous bits of thread and fabric do exist are discarded.

The Future

Although no significant design changes have occurred in the swimsuit industry in the last 20 years, the popularity of the suit and the popularity of swimming is expected to continue. Innovations are likely to focus on figure enhancement. The use of computer-assisted-design and computer-assisted-manufacture is expected to increase. Industry associations are currently working to devise a universal standard for the computer language used.

Where to Learn More


I Want to be a Fashion Designer. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1999.


Good Housekeeping Magazine Web Page. December 2001. < http://goodhousekeeping.women.com >.

Jantzen Web Page. December 2001. < http://www.jantzen.com >.

"The History of the Bathing Suit." Retro Web Page. December 2001. < http://www.retroactive.com/mar98/swimsuit.html >.

Mary MeNulty

User Contributions:

steve locke
I'm looking for a man's retro, 1920s-style bathing suit that covers both the torso and bottom? Do you know where they're made today? Thanks. SPL
K Walker
I have searched and searched for information on making men's briefs. I'm a tailor but this information I have never learned -how and what to measure to make briefs that fit the individual. All men are not the same size and underwear bought on the counter does not always fit all men. Where they should fit snug, they are baggy or too loose to give proper support. Thanks.

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: