1940s Bathing Suits, Swimsuits and Swimwear

1940s swimwear bathing suit

Claudette Colbert, 1941 Maroon Two Piece Swimsuit

1940s bathing suits, like many other clothing items, was also losing its modesty. The ’40s was the era when the midriff was born, and it was shown in swimsuits as well as playsuits. Swimsuits were tight, unlike the suits of previous eras.

One-piece swimsuits were still popular, but the new two-piece suit had plenty of fans too. The materials used to make swimsuits today were not invented yet, so suits were made from rayon jersey and rayon jersey blends with knit cotton linings. Many suits had accent panels of a velvet like rayon velour. Some also featured ruching on the front or side panels that were both pretty and figure flattering.

1940s swimwear featured stretchy control panels in the stomach, made from a new type of material called lastex, and bra cups in the bust to keep the figure looking good in the revealing (by ’40s standards of course) bathing suits. Any color could be found on a swimsuit, but patriotic colors were popular as well as floral patterns and polka dots. Suits fastened with small buttons or metal zippers in the back.

Learn about mens swimsuits here. 

1940s One Piece Swimsuit

1940s bathing suits swimsuit

1947 One Piece Bathing Suit with Floral Print and full skirt

The one-piece swimsuit looked like a very tight, short dress. Cleavage still wasn’t shown in swimwear, so the V top was just high enough with thin straps. The bra top resembled a full-coverage bra. The suit then extended down into a tight ‘skirt’ that would cover the backside completely. Skirts were either snug fitting around the hips and thighs or loose, called “swing skirts.”

1940s bathing suits

Straight skirt and flared “swing” skirt 1940s bathing suits

The back of the suit would be even with the  under bust line. Some zipped all the way up the back for full coverage while others tied the bra top around the back leaving a  gap between the bra and the bathing suit waist. The one-piece offered plenty of shaping, and sometimes had boning in the stomach area to offer additional support. A halter top was also popular – the suit would look the same except the straps tied at the neck. A new feature of some one-pieces bared a little bit of skin – a small triangle of fabric would be cut out underneath the bust to show some skin (but always above the naval.)

1940s bathing suits

Ladies at the Beach- Swimsuit on the left has a cut out in the center. Right bathing suit top is a bandeau style.

1940s swimsuits

1946 Swimsuits- The strapless Bikini on the right, oh my!

1940s swimsuits

Polka dots and Plaid swimsuits!

1940s swimwear

1949 Swimwear Ad


1940s Bikini or Two Piece Bathing Suit

1940s bathing suits two piece

1947 Two Piece Print Bikini

1940s swimsuit

1947 Striped Two Piece Bathing Suit

The bikini was officially invented in 1946 and named after the Bikini Atoll in the south Pacific where the U.S. performed nuclear tests. This suit was tiny, revealing the belly button and buttox (gasp!.) It was essentially a string bikini. Most public beaches banned the use of these new tiny swimsuit till the 50’s.  However, this wasn’t the style of two-piece that was usually worn in the ’40s – it was a little bit too revealing.

Even before the bikini, women started wearing two-piece swimsuits that looked just like one-piece bathing suits cut in half. The top was a full-coverage bra top, either with two thin straps or a halter top. The bottom looked like a tight mini-skirt, starting from the waistline and covering the entire backside. Another popular style of skirt for the two-piece was a flared skirt bottom of the same length. A top that started to gain in popularity was even more revealing – a bandeau top with strings attached to the center front that tied at the neck.

Michele Morgan in Bikini

Michele Morgan in Bikini

1940s swimwear pinup

1940s Pinup Swimsuits

By the late 1940’s, one and two peice swimsuits were loosing even more modesty. The strapless two peice was especially popular to those brave enough to wear them. By the 1950’s nearly all swimsuits were strapless. More boning and lastix was needed to keep their shape and hold the girls in place. Needless to say vintage swimsuits of the 40’s and 50’s were hardly used for vigorous swimming. A lazy day the beach or pool was their best use.

1940’s Style Swimsuits Today

1940s Style Bathing Suit

1940s Style Ruched Swimsuit

1940’s vintage bathing suits can be uncomfortable, compared to modern fit and fabrics. Thankfully, most reproduction swimsuits are made of modern Lycra material and refitted with modern construction techniques. The overall look is similar to the 1940’s style, although I find most repro swimsuits favor the classic 50’s style instead. For a more genuine 40’s bathing suits style look for their characteristics:

  • 1940s Bathing suit with a “skirt” bottom that extends all the way around. Many “skirt” suits are only skirted in the front.
  • Tops in the bandeau style, halter top or modest bra top. Avoid strapless or anything “too revealing.”
  • Ruching- Many modern swimsuits today have rediscovered the amazing slimming effects of ruching. Most swimsuits with ruching automatically have a 40’s flair to them AND they look great on all body types.
  • Simple patterns. Polka dots, tropical floral prints, stripes and some color blocking were all in style in the 40’s. Avoid any print that is “too busy.” 1940s bathing suit patterns were minimalist. Any print that you think is “cute” such as cherries or little animals are more of a 50’s style.
  • For a pin up worthy look be sure to add a pair of high heel wedges or peep toes, floppy hat, and fabulous vintage sunglasses.

Here are a few choice reproduction swimsuit designers and retailers:

vintage retro swimsuits

Fabulous Retro Swimsuits at Unique-Vintage.com

Unique-Vintage- Carries several lines of vintage style swimsuits plus their own new line. This is where I found my Ester Williams swimsuit that I LOVE.

Modcloth- Also carries several lines of swimsuits and their own, plus many come in plus sizes.

vintagedancer.com/swimsuits – A variety of vintage style swimsuits from many different online retailers, handpicked for their most authentic vintage style.

glamoursurf.com/ – Vintage swimsuits, play clothes, and lingerie. Good article on early 40’s swimsuits styles too. 

popinaswimwear.com/ – Retro style suits made in the USA

www.dillingerpinup.com/ – A few very cute 40’s and 50’s swimsuits

www.mybabyjo.com/swimwear.htm – Mostly 50’s with some that double for 40’s

www.vintagesuitsbymary.com – Swimsuits and playsuits made to order (She is currently having health issues making her swimsuits delayed. Email first for a delivery estimate.)

mrsdepew.com/beach-patterns– Sew your own 1920s skirted swimsuit with Mrs. Depew repro  patterns.

More 1940s Style Swimsuits for Sale:



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About Debbie Sessions

Debbie Sessions is passionate about wearing history through fashion. She and her husband, Oscar, have turned their hobby into a career by teaching others how to re-create vintage style with affordable new vintage inspired clothing and accessories. We connect shoppers to the best vintage inspired clothing, shoes and accessories and teach fashion history as it was worn by everyday people. Need more help? Contact us anytime.