Friday, 01 April 2016

Style for the Sun – M&S Swimwear since 1930

From knitted woollen costumes in the 1930s to body-enhancing swimwear of the 1990s, Marks and Spencer has used the latest technological innovations and designs to provide swimwear that is not only on-trend but practical too.

M&S has sold swimwear since it began selling clothing in the early 1930s. The first swimsuits were offered in a variety of styles to suit the wearer's modesty: from 'a regulation one piece... which essentially spells swimming' to 'a combined brassiere and shorts to give the utmost comfort and freedom'. Customers shopping at M&S in the 1930s would have seen a leaflet advertising woollen swimsuits that were colour-fast to both sea and sun, making them wearable, durable and fashionable.

swimwear-590-2Leaflet advertising swimwear, c1930

After the Second World War, Chairman Simon Marks knew the M&S customer was demanding 'better materials, better design, better finish...' and promised 'we shall spare no effort to satisfy these developing needs and to widen the range of our goods to meet them'. Scientific developments made during the war were used to fulfil customers' needs. New fabrics such as rayon and nylon were widely used to provide people with easy-wear, easy-care garments, and were perfect for swimwear. Men didn't miss out – swimming trunks with elasticated waists were big sellers in the 1950s.

In the 1960s beachwear became more popular with customers. The M&S stand at the 1962 Ideal Home Show sold as much swimwear in one day as an average store would sell in a week! The following year, the stand included a dedicated 'Swimwear Bar' to cope with demand, featuring styles such as the ever-popular Bri-Nylon blue and white one-piece. New fabrics meant new styles, and so shape enhancing features such as padded busts were introduced. In 1962 bikinis with foam bra tops promised 'a modern girl shape'. For customers uninterested in bikinis, there was the two-piece swimsuit, perfect for those who 'don't care for the brevity of a bikini but want to get the mostest suntan!'

swimwear-590-3Coordinated swimwear sets, from a customer catalogue, 1973

By the end of the 1960s, bikinis were hugely popular and in 1969 M&S sold over 100,000 of their best-selling towelling bikini. The same year, beachwear designer Inge-Lore Sommerfield made regular trips to Europe to spot the latest trends in swimwear, commenting after one visit: 'France has always led the field in beachwear, but we've caught up a lot!'

Swimsuits in the 70s became more revealing, with higher legs, lower backs and cut-out sections. Lycra became popular for swimwear after it was used in swimsuits at the 1972 Olympics. Men's swimming trunks were generally short and tight, and for the gentleman who wanted to coordinate his look, shorts with matching shirts were available.

As the popularity of package holidays increased and more customers were taking holidays in Europe, swimwear was advertised with photoshoots in exotic locations. Models were shown on the beach or by the hotel pool – selling an aspirational lifestyle as well as the swimsuit they were wearing.

swimwear-590-4Left: Bri-Nylon Stretch swimsuit, St Michael, 1963. Right: Advert from St Michael News staff magazine, 1963

The 'Monokini' made its first appearance in the 1980s, allowing the wearer to choose from bikini style or a swimsuit by tying strings at the sides. Sarongs became popular in the early 1980s, and were sold with instructions on how to tie them.

Swimwear in the 1990s took inspiration from the 'California look', with high hip lines and bright colours, and a body-enhancing swimsuit was launched, with seams and panels designed to move with the body. For men, the 1990s brought a demand for looser-fitting swimming shorts. Male M&S customers in France and Spain had started to request longer swimming trunks, and these more modest shorts were soon available in UK stores too.

1998 saw M&S' first range of post-surgery swimwear for women who had undergone a mastectomy. The range included swimsuits with internal pockets for prosthesis. New innovations have continued to influence swimwear design, and today features such as Quick Dry technology and chlorine-resistant Lycra have been added to the M&S swimwear range to give customers even more choice.

The Team from M&S Company Archive will be at the Festival of Vintage at York Racecourse on April 23rd & 24th showcasing their vintage as well hosting Talks, Displays & Q&A sessions throughout the whole weekend. Find out more and buy advance tickets at

The Marks in Time Exhibition at the M&S Company Archive is open to the public from Monday to Friday, 10am-5pm. Call in and discover how M&S has been part of everyday life for over 130 years. See our website for more details

All pictures taken from the M&S Company Archive'

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