Hollywood Beach Beauties: The evolution of swimwear

From woolly one-pieces to not-so-teeny bikinis, swimwear has come a long way. And, as a new book celebrating the original beach-babes proves, we’ve got these Hollywood pin-ups to thank.

The flirty 30s

David Wills Photography Archives

Glamour portraiture reached its zenith in the late 1930s and Hollywood actresses were often sent to Santa Monica Beach to be snapped having fun in the sun. Rita Hayworth, above in 1938, and Bette Davis, inset, casually posed in their wool-jersey tank suits, but there was one cardinal rule the film studios imposed on photographers and stars: the swimsuit must never get wet, the resulting ‘cling’ being quite taboo.

The daring 40s

David Wills Photography Archives

The wartime restrictions on materials encouraged the popularity of the two-piece suit as it used less fabric than the classic one-piece maillot, even though the gap between top and bottom was just three to four inches. Joan Crawford, above on Waikiki Beach, Hawaii, in 1949, and Ava Gardner, inset, posed in flattering designs made from Lastex, a lightweight silk and elastic blend originally used for girdles.

The flaunty 50s

David Wills Photography Archives

California-based designer Rose Marie Reid introduced dress sizing to swimwear, seeking to perfect the inner brassiere and incorporate tummy-tuck panels as modelled by a young Brigitte Bardot, right, in Cannes, 1953. Three years later, in the film And God Created Woman, Bardot seduced audiences everywhere in her provocative little French-cut bikinis. She started a trend for gingham which, in record time, was cut and stitched into truckloads of bikinis. Marilyn Monroe segued from her one-piece halternecks into various revealing bikini styles, as did Jayne Mansfield and Diana Dors.

The red-hot 60s

David Wills Photography Archives

Brazil suddenly came into sunny focus in the mid-60s thanks to its smooth rhythms and bikini-beautiful girls. The sea, the shore, the sand – all things coastal – captured the attention of the young and the tannable. Hawaii had become the 50th state of the US; Ursula Andress, right, undulated out of the Caribbean Sea in a startling white bikini in Dr No in 1962, and Elvis had begun his long streak of romantic-comedies, some of which were set by the sea. The bikini became a jet-set favourite, surpassing the one-piece maillots, tanks and two-piece suits in popularity.

David Wills has accrued one of the world’s largest photography archives. This is an edited extract from his book Hollywood Beach Beauties: Sea Sirens, Sun Goddesses and Summer Style 1930-1970, to be published on Thursday by Dey St, an imprint of HarperCollins, price £25. To order a copy for £18.75 (a 25 per cent discount) until 24 June, visit mailshop.co.uk/books.