As retro swimwear splashes onto beaches this summer, Sea Island Life highlights its humble beginnings and popular comeback.
By Laura Janelle Downey
Just as history repeats itself, fashion follows suit. Decade after decade, certain of-the-moment trends win the masses over for a season or two before fading away again. But before hiding that vintage-inspired swimsuit in the back of the closet, think again. What’s deemed old now, inevitably, becomes new again later.
To date, swimwear has undergone one of the greatest evolutions in fashion. From a one-piece, knitted wool number popularized in the 1920s to the barely there string bikini of the 1970s and today’s resurgence of the retro high-waist, each decade brought with it a memorable wardrobe for the water and for beaches the world over (that would be revived again and again).
In 1928, when The Cloister at Sea Island opened, people flocked to the vacation hot spot on the Georgia coast. “Sea Island was popular all year round,” says Mimi Rogers, archivist at Sea Island. “One of the attractions was the inviting sandy beach.” Spending time on Sea Island’s beach of course required guests to pack their most current swimwear for splashing in the waves, lounging on the beach and socializing.
Playing host to many notable—and fashionable—guests throughout history, Sea Island’s beach has been equal parts catwalk and playground for the newest trends. A photo from the late 1940s or early 1950s shows U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson walking along the Sea Island beach with his son-in-law, William Bundy, and daughter, Mary Acheson Bundy. While the men both wear mid-thigh-length shorts, belted or with a drawstring, Mary Acheson Bundy is photographed in an on-trend, printed two-piece bathing suit with a halter strap, high waist and skirted bottom, all details that are experiencing a revival on current catwalks.
As Trends Change
Before the first garment that loosely resembled the modern swimsuit—a skirted, knit wool bodysuit that featured thigh-length shorts—emerged on the fashion scene in the 1920s, women demonstrated modesty by wearing lightweight dresses with stockings in the water. “At the turn of the century, … women were fully covered even down to the bottoms, where their suits extended down to the thigh and over the knee,” explains Joy Sewing, fashion and beauty editor of the Houston Chronicle. “Each decade gets a little bit more and more revealing.”
While two-piece bathing suits have been de rigueur since the 1940s at Sea Island, they didn’t appear on the national stage until that time. The shift was prompted by a 1943 congressional mandate that women’s swimsuit manufacturers reduce fabric usage by 10 percent during World War II.
Even when the war ended, two-piece styles remained on beaches across the globe. The two-piece bathing suit’s popularity received a boost from popular culture, most notably the 1960 song by Brian Hyland, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and a generation of surf movies, all, not surprisingly, with bikini-clad women.
Within a decade, the 1970s ushered in the string bikini inspired by the provocative styles of Brazil. The 1980s, however, were met with a transition back into one-piece styles that covered the midriff, the beginning of the retro swimsuit revival. This incarnation of one-piece suits took on new personality with silhouettes punctuated by high-cut legs and low, scooping backs and necklines. They were also made with animal prints and other bright motifs inspired by the tropics and exotic locales.
Since the resurgence of the one-piece, virtually every form of the bathing suit has seen its 15 minutes of beach fame. In some cases, vintage inspiration mingles with contemporary convention to create completely new styles; such is the case with the “tankini,” a two-piece approach to covering the midriff with an elongated top that extends to the waist and a bottom that can take on the look of briefs, hot pants or a skirt. And to date, combinations of all past swimsuit styles are still being celebrated.
Fabric, Form and Function
The styles of bathing suits aren’t the only arena in which progress has been made: Fabrics have also become decidedly high-tech. Hoping to escape the drooping—and often unflattering—silhouettes that wool afforded, the integration of man-made fabrics unlocked a world of possibilities in bathing suits. From lastex and spandex to cellophane, Lurex and vinyl, each textile brought its own fashionable flair. Having fibers that could withstand the weight of water absorption meant that suits resisted drooping when wet, and the stretchy, elastic-infused yarn achieved a more flattering figure for the wearer.
The evolution of fabrics ushered in new styles in men’s swimwear as well. Beginning in the early 1900s, men largely swam in garments that mimicked ladies’ knit one-pieces that covered the legs, like shorts. Belts, drawstrings and zippers were incorporated into men’s suits, and shoulder straps eventually fell away from popular trends. Within a few decades, the market for men’s suits was extremely diverse with trunks, boxer-style shorts, cabana sets with matching shirts and shorts in lively prints, cut-off shorts, spandex briefs and belts that could sit low on the hips or skim the navel.
Revisiting the Past
With styles changing on a consistent basis, Sea Island’s beach played host to a diverse array of bathing styles, and trendsetters in the latest fashions could always be spotted. Notables who made a sartorial splash on Sea Island’s shore include General Dwight David Eisenhower, who was photographed in the postwar (and pre-presidential) years with his wife, Mamie. “Mamie was known for her sense of style,” Rogers says. “She would have been familiar with the latest fashion trends.” And it seems Mamie Eisenhower wasn’t just a fashion plate in her own era—the happy, floral romper she wears closely resembles the warm-weather ensembles that grace beaches even today.
The July 1965 cover of Time magazine featured cover model Michael Anderson of Nashville, Tenn., wading through the waves at Sea Island. Her two-piece suit is one that closely matches spaghetti-strap tops and high-waist styles that are experiencing resurgence with modern fashion brands.
Sewing says that the vintage trend has been modeled by pop culture’s household names: “Now you have celebrities like Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift all wearing the retro style with a high-waist bottom and a full-covered halter or a sweetheart cut with straps.”
Although the decades have seen many styles come and go, one standout suit continues to see reinvention with countless designers every summer: the retro-style maillot. While the French term has largely been replaced with the phrase “one-piece,” it stands as one of the most worn retro styles, with a covered midriff, tank straps and variations on necklines, cutouts and leg shapes.
It’s no wonder that major contemporary brands are honoring this look in their catalogs. Anthropologie features the style in a variety of ways in its 2015 collection, including throwback patterns like high-contrast polka dots, nautical stripes and floral designs to channel screen sirens like Esther Williams.
Designer Marc Jacobs also takes inspiration from the past for his contemporary collections. He channels the minimalist tank-style suit that first appeared nearly a century ago and rose to fame on a 1976 poster featuring a smiling Farrah Fawcett. Jacobs’ incarnation of the trend incorporates a low neckline and a single tropical bird printed on the front, a subtle reminder of 1980s kaleidoscopic motifs.
It’s no surprise that these trends are cycling back into popularity. Rather than showing more skin, many modern women are turning toward suits that afford coverage and style. “People want another option, and they don’t want to be fully exposed,” Sewing says.
Brands like J.Crew go retro with polka-dot bikinis that feature high waists and tops that incorporate structural support. “These styles are very flattering … and classic in a way without being overt,” Sewing says.
Companies such as Brooks Brothers outfit men with vintage styles for the beach, too. Trunks with tropical prints echo the liveliness of 1960s tiki patterns. Recent years have also witnessed an array of lengths and cuts for men. Vilebrequin is one such brand with hemlines that range from high on the thigh to above the knee in slim cuts that revive straight-leg styles.
Thanks to a season of fresh designs in swimwear for both men and women, members and guests can continue the tradition of bringing forward-thinking fashion to the Sea Island Beach Club; but this year, retro styles also give a nod to previous generations while hitting the surf and sand.
For nearly 100 years, swimwear has been a medium for testing convention and revisiting retro trends.
The one-piece swimsuit, made of knitted wool and influenced by the geometric shapes of the budding Art Deco period, became the go-to attire for the fashionable set.
One-piece swimsuits remained popular, accented by peek-a-boo cutouts. Two-piece swimwear also welcomed back skirted bottoms, now with flared silhouettes and pleats.
The two-piece bikini, aided by popular culture, became all the rage. The topless swimsuit was introduced, and spandex became available, which is still used in swimsuits today.
One-pieces revealed a lot more skin by way of deeper necklines, higher-cut leg lines and scooped backs. They also featured brightly colored prints, which made a splash on beaches.
Trends from the past are revived on runways. Styles from previous years, such as one-pieces, bikinis and tankinis experience a resurgence as part of a retro revival.