As it turns out, it wasn't until the mid 1800s that swimming for recreation developed. Before that, if a lady got in the water it was generally for bathing or therapeutic purposes. The early "fashion" swimsuits that appeared on beaches in the mid 1800s consisted of bloomers with black stockings. But by the 1880s it was different story. From The Evolution of Swimwear site:
By the 1880's the "Princess" cut was introduced, consisting of a blouse and trousers in one piece. The skirts were traded in for cotton-like pants. There was also a separate skirt that fell below the knee and button at the waist to conceal the figure. A ruffled cap or a straw hat completed the ensemble.Of course that's what you might see on the beaches here in America. In Britain the Victorian Period was another story altogether. The Fashion-Era web site has some nice pictures and descriptions of seaside wear for ladies from the Victorian and Edwardian period.
Even when bloomers were accepted by many late Victorians as cycling wear in the 1890s they still remained only on the fringes of fashions of the day.At that point in time women's swimwear was definitely more about modesty than about the practicality of moving about in the water.
One web site I came across, CoolOldStuff.com, has a series of photos from the American Memory Collection that show the changes in women's swim wear fashion over time. These pictures are just priceless. My absolute favorite was this one from Balboa Beach, CA in 1920. It's a panorama view so you'll have to scroll to see it all (click for larger view), but it's worth it. This is one of those cases where a picture is worth a thousand words. Could your granny be in this picture?
Moving on then... the Fashion-Era site tells the tale of women's swimwear from the 1920s-1960s. Ladies were getting more daring after the Roaring Twenties and their swimwear got more risque with each decade. By the time the 1940s came around (think WWII pin-up girls ;-) women were covering less and showing more skin. Here's a great picture of my mom from August 1940. She was at Detroit Beach with friends when she was captured on film. My mom couldn't swim and was terribly afraid of water all her life. But that didn't stop her from hanging out at the beach sporting the latest swim wear fashion!
When it comes to a good collection of information you can't go wrong stopping by Wikipedia. They have a page on swimsuits that gives a brief history (no pun intended) of both men's and women's swimwear.
Wikipedia also has a page devoted to the bikini...
The first bikinis were introduced just after World War II. Early examples were not very different from the women's two pieces common since the 1920s, except that they had a gap below the breast line allowing for a section of bare midriff. They were named after Bikini Atoll, the site of several nuclear weapons tests, for their supposed explosive effect on the viewer.Through the 1950s, it was thought proper for the lower part of the bikini to come up high enough to cover the navel. From the 1960s on, the bikini shrank in all directions...
According to the official version, the modern bikini was invented by French engineer Louis Réard and fashion designer Jacques Heim in Paris in 1946 and introduced on July 5 at a fashion show at Piscine Molitor in Paris. It was a string bikini with a g-string back. Pictured here is Micheline Bernardini modelling the first bikini swimwear that went by that name. Now are you picturing your grandma in this swim suit?
So what about the "fanny dunker" you ask? Well, I've saved the best for last. I have to leave you with a great video that will explain all about the fanny dunker. It starts out a little slow but stay with it. It's really a good story of the history of women's swimwear. Check it out... The History of Women's Swimwear: an interview with Esther Williams.
It's fun to look at women's fashions over time and to try and imagine our moms, aunts, grandmas and great grandmas in the swimwear of their day. Of course there's always the possibility that our female ancestors went skinny dipping too, especially the ones who lived out in the country where they could cool off in the local watering hole with some privacy... or not ;-)