"It took the space industry 10 years to put a man on the moon," said swimwear designer Anne Cole. "It took the swimwear industry 100 years to move from the ankle to the crotch."
Ms. Cole should know. She has witnessed a major chunk of swimwear trends for the past 40 years.
Ms. Cole's father, Fred Cole, was a former actor who founded Cole of California in 1925. Ms. Cole began working for her father in 1950 and has been involved in the swimwear business ever since.
"I'm the oldest living swimsuit designer," Ms. Cole said. And while that may not be true, she certainly is one of the most knowledgeable people on the rise and fall of swimwear. Recently, she gave the Fashion Group International, San Francisco, a gathering of fashion industry leaders, a tongue-in-cheek history lesson: her version of "Swimwear and the History of Sex."
"I first started traveling to stores representing Cole of California in the 1950s. Women would show up with tar and feathers," she said. "They believed I was doing women a terrible disservice by designing swimwear.
"In those days, we were not allowed to approach a customer and suggest that she look at our swimwear. The swimsuits were kept behind the counter in brown paper bags. If a woman asked to see them, then it was OK to talk to her, but we had to wait until we were approached. It was tough to make a living then.
"In the '50s, people believed swimwear was a question of morality. But swimwear is not a morality question. People are more accepting of it now because they've awakened to the human form.
"Tracking the trends does give us an accurate account of that awakening and the changing attitudes toward sex."
Women's swimwear once was primarily referred to as bathing attire. Only men actually swam. Women just stood at the water's edge and splashed around a bit. The primary objective was not to reveal too much skin or get too much sun. A typical costume was a wool serge dress with knickers, tights and a matching umbrella.
Women stayed pretty much covered up until 1910, when the Portland Knitting Co. (now Jantzen) developed a rib-knit, elasticized fabric that changed the look of swimwear forever.
It was about that time that Australian Annette Kellerman made several attempts to swim the English Channel. Later, she moved to the United States and became an exhibition swimmer. Kellerman, according to Ms. Cole, was the first woman to wear a one-piece bathing suit. She created quite a shock because the suit had no skirt. It looked like long underwear, which set tongues wagging.
"Miss Kellerman was 'banned in Boston,' " Cole recalled, "which is where that phrase came from."
Gradually, the younger women kept rolling up the legs of those suits, exposing more and more of themselves. Then, in the 1920s, something happened that changed swimwear for good. Fashion designer Coco Chanel dared to be seen in public sporting a tan. Until that time, only manual laborers were ever seen with a tan. With Chanel's daring display came a whole new trend of sunbathing. Women flaunted their tans as a display of wealth, signaling they had so much leisure time they had time to sit in the sun.
Soon swimsuits had shrunk to nothing but an embarrassment. Women wore Coco's backless suits for better tanning. Leg openings rose to the top of the thighs, and for the first time, suits were knitted in bright colors instead of black, brown or gray.
Just before World War II, designer Margit Fellegi bared the midriff. Her design was basically a one-piece suit with a triangle shape cut out of the middle. But the navel had yet to be revealed.
"During World War II, the pinup girl became popular," Ms. Cole said. "And wearing a skimpy swimsuit was patriotic -- it was considered doing your part for the war effort. Fabrics were similar to parachute cloth."
Skimpy, at that time, was a one-piece suit with boy-legs (similar to short-shorts), industrial-strength straps and corset styling. Skimpy they may have been, but suits still had little modesty panels across the lower hips.
Cole of California introduced the two-piece Swoon Suit during the war.
"It was completely adjustable due to the side lacing on the trunks and tie-straps on the bra," Ms. Cole said.
"Although the Swoon caused quite a stir, the country was shocked again in 1946, when the first bikini hit the beach in France," she said. "When we first uncovered navels, people were so shocked that we had to airbrush them out of our ads," Ms. Cole said.
In the '60s, Ms. Cole said, "the female animal emerged. Our ads showed women in animal-print bathing suits running barefoot through a jungle with men chasing them. Imagine trying to get away with an ad like that today.
"In the '60s, women wanted freedom, but didn't want anyone to notice," Cole said. "It was an odd clash of styles."