Beirut, perched as it is on the Eastern edge of the Mediterranean, feels like a holiday resort for most of the year. You’re never too far from a beach, and a large chunk of the year it’s too warm to wear anything overly formal. So leisurewear, casual clothing, and resort wear are pretty much always around us. While we may enjoy the ease of casual clothing today in the summer months, things weren’t always this comfortable. Here’s a short history of our journey from the corset to the bikini.
If we look back, way back, it was around the mid-1800s that women’s daywear was adapted for sports, from archery to croquet and boating to tennis. Women would wear “drawers” under their petticoats which allowed them free movement and kept their modesty. It was also during that time, in 1888, that the breathable cotton-mesh fabric Aertex was invented and less restrictive corsets were made that incorporated this mesh to allow air flow.
At the same time, while men’s formal wear had settled into sobriety and uniformity with black suits colouring, their leisure wear for sports and country pursuits became more flamboyant and revealing. Garments were newly adapted for the purpose of health orientated sports (as they had started to notice a need for a healthy figure), using stretchy fabrics such as jersey knits. Men wore some pretty snazzy ‘plus fours’ for golf from the 1860s. From the mid-century French companies, as well as Britain’s Aquascutum and Burberry, developed lined, twilled cotton fabrics for waterproof outerwear for the “huntin’, shootin’, fishin’” fraternity. Sports clubs and activities brought industrialists, military men, artists, and writers together in pursuit of healthy bodies to fuel the mind.
By the early 1900s some contradictions had emerged: on one hand was rapid technological change, the rise of motor cars and female emancipation; on the other a golden glow of romantic, hedonistic nostalgia enjoyed by the leisured classes. Edward VII’s love for extravagant pleasure set the tone of the age: lavish balls, country-house parties, travel, and athletic pursuits. England’s expanding middle classes, mobile due to the Industrial Revolution enjoyed an upper class lifestyle: garden parties, tea on the terrace, picnics, the races – all requiring suitable outfits. For women: pastel colours, lace, ribbons, mousseline de soie, silk chiffon…
Sportswear was a significant factor in dress reform in the 20th century, and after the First World War it progressed considerably as the 1920s were marked by an economic boom, consumerism, and leisure after the war’s austerity. It was also during the twenties that women “discovered” their legs, cut their hair, wore men’s suits, smoked, and tanned. Coco Chanel, one of the first of this kind of “modern” woman, was of the first to interpret the masculine suit in a feminine, appealing, “ensemble” manner. “Women must be able to move, get into a car without bursting their seams! Clothes must have a natural shape.” said Chanel at the time.
The prosperity of the 1950s brought the concept of leisure to the mainstream. Since air travel became less exclusive more people ventured abroad. The increased leisure time and bustling post-war resorts gave rise to a new holiday wardrobe, from informal slacks to palazzo pyjamas for the beach. Beachwear styles were big sellers both in Europe and America, but the newest fashions originated on the French Riviera, where they held annual fashion shows in St Tropez.
It was there that the bikini was unveiled in 1947; despite the explosive reaction to the two-piece, most women in the 50s still opted for the one-piece sunsuit. Things would get even skimpier from there, and to all men reading, who have gotten this far, you deserve a nice treat for being so patient; here it is: MONOKINIS.
If the bikini was a shocker in the 50s, it goes without saying that the shock factor of the monokini in the 60’s was to be expected, after it had been through Mod styling, visited outer space and swung llike there was no tomorrow. Breaking new ground, Rudi Gernreich wore a “monokini” going topless and shocked quite a few.
And that’s pretty much how we went from the corset to half a bikini in about 70 years.