The beach mermaids of the ’40s – photos show what women wore to the beach in 1940s

Neil Patrick
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Swimwear of the 1940s, 50s and early 60s followed the silhouette mostly from early 1930s.Wartime production during World War II required vast amounts of cotton, silk, nylon, wool, leather, and rubber. In 1942, the United States War Production Board issued Regulation L-85, cutting the use of natural fibers in clothing and mandating a 10% reduction in the amount of fabric in women’s beachwear. To comply with the regulations, swimsuit manufacturers produced two-piece suits with bare midriffs.

Women’s swimwear of the 1940s incorporated increasing degrees of midriff exposure. Teen magazines of late 1940s and 1950s featured similar designs of midriff-baring suits and tops. However, midriff fashion was stated as only for beaches and informal events and considered indecent to be worn in public.

 

-Andrea_King_pin-up_from_Yank_The_Army_Weekly_August_1945. Source

Pin up of Andrea King from the army magazine “Yank” in August 1945. Source

Nancy Porter, Pinup from Yank, June 8, 1945 Source

Nancy Porter, Pinup from Yank, June 8, 1945 Source

 

Ann_Miller_pin-up_from_Yank,The_Army_Weekly,_June_1945 Source

Ann Miller pin-up for Yank, June 1945 Source

 

Audrey Totter pin-up from Yank, The Army Weekly, August 1945 Source

Audrey Totter pin-up from Yank, The Army Weekly, August 1945 Source

Because of the figure-hugging nature of these garments, glamour photography since the 1940s and 1950s has often featured people wearing swimsuits. This type of glamour photography eventually evolved into swimsuit photography exemplified by the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Beauty contests also required contestants to wear form-fitting swimsuits.

 

Berlin, "1940s Source

Berlin, 1940s Source

 

Dorothy Malone pin-up from Yank, The Army Weekly, April 13, 1945 Source

Dorothy Malone pin-up from Yank, The Army Weekly, April 13, 1945 Source

By the early 1940’s, two-piece swimsuits were ubiquitous on American beaches. The July 9, 1945, Life shows women in Paris wearing similar items. Hollywood stars like Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner tried similar swimwear or beachwear. Pin ups of Hayworth and Esther Williams in the costume were widely distributed.

Pin-up photo of Betty Anne Cregan for the Dec. 7, 1945 issue of Yank, the Army Weekly, a weekly U.S. Army magazine fully staffed by enlisted men. Source

Pin-up photo of Betty Anne Cregan for the Dec. 7, 1945 issue of Yank.  Source

 

Surf sirens, Manly beach, New South Wales, 1938-46 Source

Surf sirens, Manly beach, New South Wales, 1938-46 Source

The most provocative swimsuit was the 1946 Moonlight Buoy, a bottom and a top of material that weighed only eight ounces. What made the Moonlight Buoy distinctive was a large cork buckle attached to the bottoms, which made it possible to tie the top to the cork buckle and splash around au naturel while keeping both parts of the suit afloat. Life magazine had a photo essay on the Moonlight Buoy and wrote, “The name of the suit, of course, suggests the nocturnal conditions under which nude swimming is most agreeable.

Upper part of a swimsuit, 1947; Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg Source

Upper part of a swimsuit, 1947; Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg Source

 

Woman_modelling_swimwear,_28_March_1947Source

Woman modelling swimwear, 28 March 1947. Source

 

Women in Bathing Suits North Africa 1944 Source

Women in Bathing Suits, North Africa, 1944. Source

 

Young woman at lake in swimsuit, 1945.Source

Young woman at lake in swimsuit, 1945. Source

The first bikinis appeared 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.