The fact that the one-piece is now viewed as the sexy-yet-modest alternative in swimwear is a bit ironic, considering wearing one used to be a crime. Decades before the loosening societal strictures of the post Summer of Love era made skin more accessible, a peek of flesh brought with it moral indignation and public ire. If you need proof that society has been policing women’s bodies for centuries, look to Annette Kellerman, the professional Australian swimmer, who in 1907 wore her one-piece, then dubbed a maillot, to a beach in Boston and was subsequently arrested for indecent exposure because, (gasp) her arms, legs, and neck were visible.
Before Kellerman, women wore bloomers, trousers, and full-length shifts made of fabrics like wool and cotton in order to conceal their physiques at the beach. Kellerman gave that notion the metaphorical middle finger when she decided to sport a tightly-fitted maillot, and soon, a new age followed, with swimwear that favored practicality and comfort over outdated notions of propriety. (General note: When you’re sewing lead weights into the hem of your swimming gown in order to prevent a bit of calf from showing, you know the patriarchy has too much power.)
Fast forward through a world war, a fabric shortage, and second-wave feminism and we were gifted the bikini – a two-piece swimsuit that bared the midriff and supposedly liberated women everywhere. As the bikini became popular, the one-piece disappeared into the backs of closets and the sad piles of sales bins. Women were persuaded to expose more of their bodies in the summer. How else could you get a good tan and a nice boy to notice you on the beach?
An entire industry was created around the bikini – think of all that waxing and baking salons now had to provide – and the media used the suit to push how-to guides for bikini-ready bodies. Through it all, the one-piece was still on our racks, hanging around like the proverbial Andrew Lincoln in Love, Actually, telling us how beautiful and loved we were on those days we’d consumed too many carbs or were too bloated to rock a two-piece.
And then, Hollywood stepped in.
Sure, there were a host of movies in the ’80s and ’90s that featured women in tiny string bikinis – sex sells obviously – but when Farrah Fawcett sold millions of posters in a red-hot one-piece, when Bo Derek frolicked in a nude maillot, and when Pamela Anderson saved lives and looked sexy as hell doing it in her iconic Baywatch uniform, the one-piece proved it had weathered the test of time.
All it needed was a bit of nostalgia and a fashion revolution to make its comeback.