A Gender-Inclusive Perspective On Swimwear

person with arms wide wearing gender neutral swimwear

Gender and Swim Clothes

For most of us, the concept of gendered swimwear goes back as far as we can remember. From an early age, we direct young girls to the frilly two-piece suits and boys to rash guards and swim trunks. 

However, not everyone feels their best self in the clothing set aside for one specific gender. Or, perhaps some people might want to show more skin, and others may want to cover up a little more.

Human beings are unique creatures by nature, but historically, our clothing hasn’t always represented that. Thankfully, in recent years there has been a push for more gender-inclusive clothing, even in swimwear. 

Let’s all about inclusive fashion:

History of Swimwear

In order to fully understand the importance of non-gendered and gender-neutral swimwear, we have to first look at the history of swimwear itself. 

So let’s get into it.

How Did Swimwear Start?

In many places, swimwear wasn’t a thing at all. Swimming and bathing were synonymous for quite a long time, and well, it only makes sense to bathe in the nude. 

By many accounts, swimwear started in a place called — you might have guessed it — Bath. Bath is a city in England that shares a location with some Ancient Roman bathhouses. 

In the 1800s, people rediscovered these baths, and as Bath became a popular destination, local authorities decided it was prudent to start enforcing a “bathing costume.” These costumes would have looked quite similar to the modern-day swim briefs that men often wear.

Bathing and Gender

In the Middle Ages, women could not bathe much, if at all. Human bodies (especially women) were considered immodestly sinful, and hygiene wasn’t such a ritual affair back then, even for the wealthy. 

Let’s roll back around to Bath in the 1800s. Back then, men were bathing in the nude to the degree that they needed to be told to wear swim shorts, but what about women?

Well, here’s the answer:

The Bathing Machine

Women would bathe in a wheeled cart known as a bathing machine. These devices were little huts rolled into shallow waters for women to wash in. Doesn’t seem like the most pleasant way to spend an afternoon, does it?

Style vs. Comfort

Gendered swimwear for women was always about appearances, and the standards for men’s swimwear remained related to comfort pretty consistently throughout its history. Even down to the fabric used, the difference is clear.

Here’s what that means:


In the beginning, men wore bathing suits very similar to what we see today: small, lightweight, and revealing. This allowed greater freedom of movement and activity in the water. 

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that swimwear regulations entered the mainstream outside of Bath. Because of the now massive demand for bathing suits, people developed a new style. This was the Edwardian men’s one-piece we often see in period dramas or old photos. They often made it of thin, lightweight fabric and looked like a tank top fused with swim shorts. 

Despite this version’s famous look, people would only use it for a few years. By the 1930s, men’s swimwear had already returned to the short briefs and occasionally some form of swim top.

From early in the history of men’s swimwear, manufacturers and designers made comfort in fabric a priority. At first, they made garments of wool because of its water-wicking quality.

From there, fabric constantly evolved. Designers tried new things, including using rubber to create the best experience possible for men’s swimwear.

Eventually, nylon and other synthetic fabrics would enter the field, but until that point, comfort and innovation were always on the minds of those in this growing industry.


The fabric was different in women's swimwear. Throughout the 1800s and into the 1900s, women’s swimwear was strictly full-body coverage and made of heavy fabric. A typical swim costume consisted of long bloomers and a loose-fitting dress layered overtop. 

The fabric was heavy so that it wouldn’t float up to reveal any body parts while in the water. The idea was a woman could not show her body in any way, shape, or form. There doesn’t seem to have been much thought to comfort or ease of movement back then. 

Swim Sports

In fact, it wouldn’t have been until the rise of women's swim sports in the early 1900s that people became conscious of those things. 

It was then that some women used a garment very similar to the men’s one-piece discussed previously. Although, theirs might have had more similarities to a leotard with long shorts. 

This move toward the comfort of female athletes led designers to raise the hem of women’s swim costumes to mid-thigh.

This came with an unfortunate darker side, however.  In many places, they designated authorities who would measure the length of a woman’s swim dress. Their sole job was to make certain it concealed her body as much as humanly possible while still adhering to the progress of the time. 

The Swimwear Evolution Revolution

Around World War Two, women’s swimwear became less about concealing the female body and more about highlighting it. It was during this era when two pieces gained popularity, and someone designed, wore, and photographed the first bikini.

This leads us to the swimwear we see today.

Gendered Swimwear

Style and Comfort vs. Gender

Somewhere along the line, we convinced ourselves that women need to be aware of how they look in swimwear and that men should chase comfort.

However, more people are speaking up: Style is whatever makes you feel good. You can have both style and comfort if you want both. 

When it comes to gender-inclusive swimwear, you have a bunch of options:

  • Go for a vintage-style 6" Racerback Unisuit with modern touches like a half-moon neckline and joyful rainbow stripe running down the sides. No wool fabric here: just a fully-lined OEKO-Tex-certified combo of UV-blocking recycled polyester and Spandex.
  • Or, go tropical with the 7" Board Short. With two choices of prints or two iconic solids, you might need one of each. It has a lace-up front closure with gusset; it’s UV-protecting, produced sustainably, and has a soft, elastic waistband. And, oh yes, it has pockets. 

While gender-inclusive swimwear is on the rise, so are new and old styles blended to make something perfect for everyone! Shorts, swim tanks, bikinis, and even a nod to the one-piece style that crossed the gender binary so long ago are back in improved forms. 

You and Swimwear

Style is just all the little preferences that make up the way you feel comfortable in your look. The same goes for swimwear. Historically, swimwear ranks among undergarments and nightwear with how hyper-gendered the world tried to make it.

The good news is that everything from swimwear to undergarments can be gender-inclusive and gender-neutral

Gendering clothes comes from a place of control anyway, and who needs that in their lives? Wear that swimsuit that puts a smile on your face and makes you rush to the shoreline. 


A Brief History Of Women's Swimwear | All That's Interesting

Why Is It Called A Bathing Suit | The Bryan Museum

Sex On The Beach Swimwear And The Politics Of Gender | The Fashion Studies Journal

History of the bikini: How it came to America | Slate