An illustration depicting a man and three women in old-fashioned swimwear cavorting in the surf at the beach, c. 1880s.
Valerie Steele, museum director at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, told CBS News' Mo Rocca that early swimsuits were not actually designed with swimming in mind. "Swimming was not something that most people did as sports until the 20th century," she said.
But changing social mores, and the rise of the leisure class, would lead to more revealing swimwear.
By CBSNews.com senior producer David Morgan
"A Jolly Crowd," originally a stereoscopic photograph taken by B.W. Kilburn at Atlantic City, N.J., c. 1897.
FIT's Valerie Steele said the bathing suit got its name because that was one of its main functions: "You wore it when you bathed in the ocean. Because a lot of the time people were in the water not to swim, let alone to do laps, but just to be bathing. Women would be holding onto a rope and bouncing up and down happily in the waves."
"It does look like a complete dress now," said Steele of a 19th century woman's bathing costume -- the oldest in the museum's collection. "It's a complete ensemble with long pantaloons, a skirt, a corset, stockings and shoes."
Left: A bathing suit-clad woman and a swimming instructor are pictured on Midland Beach, Staten Island, N.Y., in 1898.
"Swimming was not something that most people did as sports until the 20th century; even most sailors in the 19th century could not swim," said Steele. "Lots of men who could swim, swam naked, but that tended to be done in rivers or pools that were not mixed bathing places. As places like Coney Island got more popular for men and women to swim together, then there was more pressure on men to put on a bathing suit. And what they ended up putting on was a one-piece that was like trunks and an undershirt together all in one piece.
"Women tended to be still all dressed up in pretty much body-covering clothes."
Beachgoers are pictured relaxing on the sand c. 1900.
The amount of skin revealed at the beach had as much to do with modesty as with class, said Steele: "Plenty of working-class women wore, for example, shorter skirts, and their legs would show. But it was not appropriate for respectable middle-class women."
And fabrics tended to be flannel or wool which, when wet, would be very heavy. "Which was another factor in making it difficult to swim, even if you knew how to swim," said Steele.
A glamor shot of "Miss Swim" -- a portrait of a young bathing beauty holding a parasol -- dated 1904.
A 1902 studio portrait of two women in "bathing clothing," produced by the Ullman Mfg. Co., New York.
A young woman in a bathing suit poses with a small dog in front of a studio backdrop, c. 1913.
Bathing Suit Parade
Extracts from a panoramic photograph of a bathing suit fashion parade at Seal Beach, Calif., July 14, 1918.
Left: Champion marathon swimmer and vaudevillian Rose Pitonof is pictured in swimming attire c. 1910-1913.
"Technology follows social mores; it usually doesn't create them," said FIT's Steele. "So when you get the shift in the early 20th century from being covered up at the beach to wearing a more revealing bathing suit, it has something to do with changes in attitude towards body exposure. You have bare arms, a lot more of the body exposed. Also, you had a shift to a more athletic mindset -- more young women and young men were swimming, playing golf, riding bicycles."
Evelyn Lewis, Miss Washington 1922, is photographed in a bathing suit at Wardman Park pool in Washington, D.C.
In 1922 Lt. Col. Clarence O. Sherrill, Superintendent of Public Buildings and Parks in Washington, D.C., issued an order that bathing suits at the local bathing beach must not be over six inches above the knee.
At left: Bill Norton, a bathing beach policeman, measures the distance between knee and hem on a woman in Washington, D.C.
Suntans also showed a change in thinking about class. "The 19th century attitude wanted you to have very pale skin to show that you weren't working class, you were not out in the sun laboring in the field," said Steele. "By the 1920s, the suntan was a status symbol, 'cause it proved that you could go off to the Riviera or something and go on vacation."
Left: U.S.-born dancer and entertainer Josephine Baker poses in a two-piece bathing suit in Paris in this c. 1920s photo.
Holiday-makers wearing striped, one-piece swimming suits offer piggyback rides on the beach of Ostend, Belgium in this July 1, 1938, photo.
A candidate for "most beautiful bather" appears, for the first time wearing a bikini, at the Molitor swimming pool in Paris, July 5, 1946.
"You had two-piece bathing suits in France from the 1930s on," said Steele. "But as they got skimpier, the exposure of the belly button with bikinis caused a huge uproar. And for a long time, that was really quite taboo in America. Two-piece was fine to show some midriff. But you didn't want to show the belly button itself."
The fashion model Dovima is pictured wearing a bikini, lying on a platform near the water, at Montego Bay, Jamaica in November 1946 -- part of a photo shoot for Harper's Bazaar magazine.
Three swimsuit models are pictured wearing new two-piece bikinis and matching pareos, June 8, 1951, at the Molitor open-air swimming pool in Paris.
Eighteen-year-old Janine Rosselli, "Miss Mimosa," is pictured wearing a bikini at Bormes-les-Mimosas, France, February 26, 1952.
A photo of actress Marilyn Monroe dated May 22, 1953.
French actress Jeanne Moreau is photographed on a beach on December 6, 1958. December!
Miss New York City
From left: Arleen Wilentz, Duane Fox, and Maureen Cody -- contestants for Miss New York City -- are pictured at the Grace Downs Airline Hostess School in New York, 1960.
A publicity still of actress Elizabeth Taylor taken during filming of "Suddenly, Last Summer" (1959).
Florence Griffith Joyner
Olympic athlete Florence Griffith Joyner poses for a portrait in 1988.
Left: A man sunbathes at Coney Island on the opening day of New York City's beaches in this May 27, 2006, file photo.
Steele spoke of American men's predilection to wear "long, kind of baggy bathing suits," compared to European men wearing tiny Speedos. "Europeans have always been more relaxed about body exposure," she said.
Model Naomi Campbell presents a turquoise two-pieces bathing suit and a white bathrobe by Karl Lagerfield during the Spring/Summer 94 ready-to-wear Chanel collection, October 14, 1993, in Paris.
Summer Sanders of the United States looks on during the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
Olympic and world record holder Susie O'Neill of Australia models the revolutionary and highly-controversial body suit, which was unveiled at the Sydney International Aquatic Center, March 17, 2000. The new suit, named Fastskin, is modeled on shark skin and is estimated to improve swim times by up to three percent.
From left: Steven Parry, Hannah Stockbauer, Katy Sexton, Mark Foster, Mirna Jukic and Thomas Rupprath during Speedo's press launch of "the World's Fastest Swimsuit," at The Bridge, March 9, 2004 in London.
American swimmer Michael Phelps participates in a training session, August 13, 2004 at the Olympic Aquatic Center in Athens, Greece.
A model walks down the runway during the Dagmar Spring/Summer 2013 Fashion Show at the Mercedes-Benz Stockholm Fashion Week on August 28, 2012 in Stockholm, Sweden.
"There's all kinds of bathing suits that are for people who are really ripped," said FIT's Valerie Steele. "So that if you look at a current issue of Vogue, you'd see wonderful one-pieces which are cut out all along the sides. So if you have any kind of muffin top or anything, you couldn't wear this bathing suit, because you have to have a really buff torso."
Muslim fashion designer Aheda Zanetti makes adjustments to her Islamic swimsuit worn by Australian model Mecca Laalaa, at her shop in Sydney, January 12, 2007. The "Burqini," marketed as the first two-piece Muslim swimwear for women, attracting customers from North America, Europe and across the Middle East.
FIT's Valerie Steele says that, in addition to the growing problems of obesity, increased awareness about the sun and its dangers is making exposure to the sun more problematic for more people.
"The sun is no longer just a healthy Vitamin D-giving device but it also can really seriously age and damage your skin and your health. So I think people are more concerned to protect themselves from the sun than they used to be. "I think you're going to start to see more in the way of what people call 'burqinis," where there's a bathing suit which covers a lot more of your body, [or] two-piece tankinis, or a sort of a loose tunic top so you're not getting as much sun."
After FINA, the governing body of competitive swimming, banned the use of full-body suits, Speedo invited students from the London College of Fashion, the University of Falmouth, and the University of Huddersfield, to design ways to recycle the now-obsolete Speedo LZR Racer swimsuit. The project, said Speedo president David Robinson, kept the suits out of landfills, while performing a useful function for innovative fashion designers-to-be.
For more info:
The Museum at FIT, New York
By CBSNews.com senior producer David Morgan