How the One-Piece Swimsuit Played a Role in ‘Freeing’ Greek Women

Women’s Swimwear in Athens’ Glyfada suburb, 1935.

It is hard to imagine that just over 100 years ago, a woman would find herself being arrested for simply wearing a one-piece bathing suit at the beach — especially because we are talking about a modest one-piece, complete with short-selves and stopping mid-thigh!

Here in Greece, locals practically live at the beach for 4 months out of the year, and women take for granted that they can dress up and accessorize themselves however they please. The woman who is to thank for modern-day acceptance of swimsuits and for freeing Greek women of itchy, woolly swimsuits has an intriguing story.

The role and rights of women worldwide have completely changed since a fateful day in 1907 when a 20-year-old Australian diver, Annette Kellerman, wore the world’s first one-piece bathing suit designed for a woman to a Boston beach in the U.S., where she was promptly arrested on charges of indecency.

Annette Kellerman

When Kellerman was released from custody, the judge overseeing her case placed the condition that the athlete could only train in the one-piece bathing suit and that she had to wear black stockings – something that thankfully didn’t stick with the bathing suit trend!

Kellerman wasn’t having it and started designing her own suits, and then, later she went on to star in the first silent pictures with nude scenes.

Maybe it was because Kellerman was born a fighter – her legs crippled by some unknown cause when she was a child — either by rickets or undiagnosed polio. Kellerman was given braces to straighten her legs, and her docor reccommended swimming as therpy. Some might say it was kismit.

Luckily, Kellerman wasn’t the only woman who was ready to take to plunge into the 20th century and free herself from the wooly and itchy swimsuits of the times. Her swimsuits she designed started trending throughout the Western world — especially in Greece!

Womens swimwear in Kalamaki, southern Athens, Greece, 1930.

At the turn of the 20th century, women in Greece were, as women around the world previous to the one-piece swimsuit Kellerman designed, sporting something that would nowadays be considered crazy — a two piece consisting of a dress made of wool, which was worn over long bloomers, as well as wearing stockings — basically, it was like going swimming in your winter clothes! Can you imagine trying to swim in the sea in the hot Greek summer wearing multiple layers of wool?

Women’s swimwear in Greece, circa 1915

When we think about the evolution of swimwear in Greece alone, its interesting to note that some of the sexiest and most provocative women’s swim suits today are designed by Greek designers and are trending around the world. But, this was not always the case.

So, give a passing thought to the wool swimsuit/dress and then give a little thanks to Annette Kellerman the next time you go bikini shopping!

The evolutions and freedoms for women ensued within a few decades after the world’s first one-piece swimsuit debuted, beaches became “mixed” and women were allowed to bathe with men throughout most of the Western world, and soon after the police stopped patrolling the U.S. beaches with a measuring tape to be sure women’s suits were long enough to be considered “decent”.

As for Annette? The young athlete-turned designer spent her entire life as an advocate of health, fitness, and promoting natural beauty. She saw the swimsuit evolve into many forms throughout her lifetime from 1887 until her death in 1975.

Photos of Greece from Nikos Politis private photographic archives.