On the tracks of bathing culture - from the chaste bathing shirt to the tight Fio Dental
The exhibition takes visitors back to antiquity - because, strictly speaking, the bikini is not a 20th century invention: a 4th century mosaic in the Sicilian Villa Romana del Casale shows women playing sports wearing a "fascia pectoralis". To cover the chest and for better support, the sportswomen used bands of fabric that already bore a resemblance to the bikini. The origins of bathing culture also lie in Roman antiquity: even today, the remains of the largest and most magnificent thermal baths can be admired in Rome itself. Roman baths were not only used for personal hygiene, but also as social meeting places. The ancient bathing culture fell into oblivion from the middle of the 4th century during the migration of the peoples - the knowledge of the complicated technical procedure for operating the baths could no longer be passed on after the fall of the Imperium Romanum.
Photo: "Venus in a bikini", ca. 1 c. BC.
© Musero archeologico nazionale di Napoli.
Photo: Mosaic Villa Romana del Casale, 4th century AD © Günter Hoffmann
In the general historical consciousness, "the Middle Ages" usually conjures up the stereotypical image of a dirty society - but this did not correspond to reality at all. The development of the medieval city system in the 12th century promoted a new bathing system: Men and women bathed together in public bathhouses, wearing long white shirts. Bathhouses, however, not only served for personal hygiene, but also functioned as social meeting places. Due to alcoholic debauchery, gambling and amorous adventures, the bathhouses soon became a thorn in the side of the church. Finally, the spread of epidemics such as the plague or syphilis from the end of the 15th century brought about the decline of these places of amusement. Pathogens were suspected in the water, which is why new practices for body cleansing emerged with partial washings of the face and hands, feet or hair.
© bpk / Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin / Ruth Schacht.
In a Burgundian bathing room,
from: Valerius Maximus, Facta et dicta memorabilia, dated:
1420-1450, opaque colours on parchment, inventory no.:
Dep. Breslau 2, vol.2, 244r, Manuscript Department,
Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin / Preußischer Kulturbesitz.
Caption: Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Fountain of Youth, 1546, painting / oil on lime wood, dimensions 120.6 x 186.1 cm, inventory no.: 593, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. © bpk / Gemäldegalerie, SMB / Jörg P. Anders
With the Enlightenment, Europe became increasingly secularised at the beginning of the 18th century. This was accompanied by a reform of ideas about health and hygiene: bathing in open waters and warm springs for medicinal purposes became fashionable. For moral reasons, however, the sexes bathed separately; women wore long, multi-layered bathing costumes and used horse-drawn bathing carts to undress unobserved in the water. Especially when bathing in the open sea, the heavy layers of fabric could endanger life, as they threatened to pull the wearers under the water. Men, on the other hand, bathed naked in the beginning and wore light, one-piece swimming costumes made of cotton from the middle of the 19th century. At the end of the 19th century, sleeves and trousers, which were, however, only allowed to be worn in combination with a skirt, were increasingly shortened in women's fashion. The collection of the BikiniARTmuseum begins with a bathing costume dating from around 1870.
Photo: French catalogue for ladies' and men's swimwear, 1888.
Photo: Bathing trolley around 1890 © Norderney Municipal Archives
After swimming had already gained high popularity for men at the end of the 19th century, women's competitive swimming only came to the public's attention after 1900. Due to conservative customs and morals, female swimmers were forced to cover their bodies with skirts during competitions, which considerably restricted their freedom of movement. On European and US beaches and bathing waters, beach cops checked compliance with the clothing regulations; violations could result in fines or even several days in jail, depending on the region. The fact that the protests of the first wave of the women's movement were also reflected in a change in swimwear is an example of how it also functions as a mirror of socio-political developments: When the Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman was training on a beach in Boston in 1907 in a men's swimming costume she had designed herself, she was unceremoniously arrested by a policeman. In view of the large number of women who had already drowned due to the dress code, the magistrate finally legalised the wearing of one-piece swimming costumes.
Photo: Women in swimwear, France 1906. © BikiniARTmuseum
Photo: Annette Kellermann around 1900. © ISHOF
As the pleasure aspect of bathing gradually outweighed the original health-promoting aspects, bathing attire also developed in a new direction in the progressive 1920s. Joint bathing by men and women became increasingly normal in the course of the liberalisation and emancipation processes, although in the first half of the decade women still had to combine their swimwear with stockings in many places. Instead of heavy materials like serge or flannel, both sexes now wore swimwear made of light cotton jersey. In the course of time, trouser legs also became shorter in women's fashion and the skirt soon disappeared altogether. Swimming costumes were thus almost unisex, although women usually also wore bathing caps.
Photo: Men and women in swimwear, France, 1920s.
Photo: Swimming athletes Ethelda Bleibtrey and Duke Kahanamoku in 1920.
In the 1930s, a new trend emerged that was to have a significant impact on swimwear: sunbathing. With the disappearance of the pale ideal of beauty, which for centuries had been considered an indispensable attribute of gentility, swimwear and beachwear also changed: skimpy two-pieces came into fashion, similar in appearance to the lingerie of the time, with the navel still completely covered. While two-piece suits became established on beaches, lakes and in baths in the rest of Europe, the development of swimwear in Germany was inhibited by, among other things, the Prussian Gusset Decree of 1932, which prescribed the moral covering of the body and the attachment of a piece of fabric ("gusset") to the crotch of swimwear.
Photo: Ladies at the Piscine Molitor, 1938.
Photo: Regulations Zwickelerlass. © Institute for Urban History Frankfurt am Main (ISG FFM), Signature: Sport- und Badeamt 148, Author: anonymous
The museum takes a close look at a key event that was to have a profound impact on 20th century swimwear: the invention of the bikini by Louis Réard on 5 July 1946. As part of its first summer festival after the Second World War, the Molitor swimming pool in Paris held a competition for the best bathing costume, in which many original bathing designers tried their luck. One of them was the trained mechanical engineer Louis Réard. He was the first to develop a two-piece suit with an exposed navel, which was a revolution from both a fashion and a moral point of view. As media coverage at the time revolved around the atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll, he named the piece "Bikini" - thus the skimpy two-piece was associated with the explosive power of an atomic bomb. Réard initially found no mannequin willing to present his invention. All young women feared losing their reputation in view of the provocative design; the nightclub dancer Micheline Bernardini finally went down in history as the first wearer of the bikini. The presentation of the bikini caused a massive scandal due to its revealing cut: as late as the 1950s, contemporary magazines considered it "unthinkable that a girl of tact and decency would ever wear such a thing." It was to take another 20 years or so before the bikini was able to establish itself among the general population.
In the BikiniARTmuseum, the history of its creation is honoured with a specially produced Louis Réard show. In addition, 13 of 17 original bikinis preserved worldwide are in the collection - including: the "Golden Réard", the historically most valuable bikini.
Photo: Bikini inventor Louis Réard.
Photo: Micheline Bernardini in a Réard bikini, 1946. © Ullstein Bild - dpa.
Although the bikini was not yet established in the 1950s, the decade is characterised by playful, innovative and feminine swimwear. Waisted cuts, floral patterns and breast-forming functions trace their traces through the fashion lines of numerous contemporary designers and labels such as Elsa Schiaparelli, Rose Marie Reid or the German cult label Benger Ribana. The museum pays special attention to fashion and style icons of the decade such as Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe and Esther Williams. Bardot and Monroe in particular paved the way for the bikini by recognising its revolutionary potential early on and wearing it to film festivals and photo shoots as early as the 1950s.
A highlight of the museum collection: Marilyn Monroe's original one-piece suit that she wore in the 1951 film "Love Nest". In addition, original pieces by famous film icons such as Elizabeth Taylor, Esther Williams or Scarlett Johansson bring a touch of Hollywood to Bad Rappenau in Baden-Württemberg.
Photo: Advertising shoot Marilyn Monroe "Love Nest", 1955.
© Bridgeman Images
Photo: Brigitte Bardot in Cannes in 1953. © AURIMAGES
With the cheapening of air travel in the 1960s, many people from cooler countries increasingly spent their holidays in warmer climes - swimwear in bright colours reflected the desire for sun, beach and sea. In the course of the decade, the provocative two-piece became established among the general population and was celebrated by many women as a symbol of emancipation. This process was spurred on, for example, by Ursula Andress' legendary bikini appearance in the James Bond film "007 chases Dr. No" (1962). In 1964, Rudi Gernreich introduced the monokini, which completely exposed the wearer's breasts - but the presentation of the provocative garment caused more horror than enthusiasm: since people had just become accustomed to the bikini, Gernreich's invention seemed to break the boundaries of liberality.
Photo: Bond girl Ursula Andress, 1962.
Photo: Article "Ein Hoch dem Badesommer 1968", 1968.
Psychedelic patterns were particularly characteristic of the innovative swimwear of the 1970s; in the "flower power" era, fabrics printed with floral patterns were extremely popular. Parallel to this, a trend towards increasingly skimpy cuts emerged. The provocative swimwear from Rio de Janeiro spread like wildfire around the world. The sexual revolution that reached its zenith in this decade was sometimes expressed in the invention of the thong. Eventually, the back part of the bottom was replaced by a string and the fio dental (in German: "dental floss bikini") was born: it is considered the pinnacle of fabric scarcity in swimwear.
Photo: "Heinzelmann Orchid" brochure, 1971.
Photo: Model Rose di Primo in a "Blue Man" bikini, around 1973.
Typical of the cut of 1980s swimming costumes were the waist-high, athletic-looking leg cut-outs. Bikinis were often disguised as two-piece sports jerseys, with equally high leg cut-outs and figure-shaping materials such as Lycra or spandex, giving the overall impression of long-leggedness. With the beginning of the 1980s, topless bathing also became increasingly fashionable. Parallel to this revealing development, swimming costume models from previous decades with peplums or flounces were increasingly reverted to.
Photo: "Quick" swimwear, 1981.
Photo: Triumph, 1988. © Pedro Volkert
Swimwear in the 1990s was more innovative than ever before: bikinis and swimming costumes were worn in every conceivable colour, pattern and shape. Creative two-pieces made of grass or cake shapes met diamond and gold-studded bikinis in haute couture. The line between swimwear and everyday wear increasingly disappeared as bikini tops and bras were now worn with jeans or even over a T-shirt. By the end of the 1990s, bikini bottoms seemed skimpier than ever: the mons veneris was just barely covered and the leg cut-out not infrequently reached the hips. While the shoulder pads of the 1980s disappeared again, push-up cups began their triumphant advance.
Photo: Simona Patrucco, Reggi-Caramel (Custard cups),
tongs and creme caramel molds, 1990.
Photo: "Max" bathing time, 1996.
In the early 2000s, the tummy was once again the focus of swimwear designs. Sophisticated horizontal and vertical stripes connected tops and bottoms and unconventional strap creations structured the neck and hips. Traditional materials like wool were reinterpreted and combined with synthetic fabrics. The classic bikini triangles were also replaced by striking squares for the first time. Curvy stars and starlets like US singer Beyoncé Knowles brought the hourglass figure into fashion, which is why feminine curves were again skilfully showcased in swimwear.
Photo: Design by Fatima Lopez, 2000.
© PICTURE-ALLIANCE / DPA
Photo: Collection "Gianne Albertoni", 2003.
The colourful facets of diversity are also reflected in swimwear today: what is worn is what is liked. This is particularly evident in the gender debate, which has also left its mark on contemporary swimwear. An example of this is the Brazilian label "Fernando Cozendey", which won the JANARA Swimwear Award in the category "Extravagant & Provocative" with a men's bikini in 2021. In times of climate crisis, the demand for sustainably produced swimwear is also growing louder - progressive-minded manufacturers like the founders of the Liechtenstein label "Lanasia" therefore offer fashionable one-pieces and two-pieces made from old fishing nets or PET bottles. In addition, swimwear is gradually turning towards a more positive perception of the body: the aim is to break away from the idea that only figure types who conform to the ideal of beauty can be considered attractive.
With its guiding perspective "Body Positivity", the BikiniARTmuseum wants to encourage women of any age, figure or ethnicity to be courageous and to break away a little from body ideals propagated in the media - together, the aim is to break down the image of supposed perfection and create more space for authenticity. The forum "Liberation versus Sexism" initiated by the museum also contributes to this.
Photo: Award-winning men's bikini from
"Fernando Cozendey", 2021.
Photo: Sustainable swimwear by "Lanasia",
"A Sisters Collection", 2020.