Bikinis … with strings attached?
By Issy Lovett (Cover image by Aurai Swimwear)
In March 2019, fashion brand Reformation launched a new line of swimwear with the announcement, "These swimsuits are not sustainable enough." Rarely had a fashion label so openly noted its own shortfalls. It was both a clever advertising strategy and a way to engage customers in a discussion about the complexities involved in being a 'sustainable' fashion label. Many customers want sustainable products — including swimwear — and a number of eco-friendly clothing lines are stepping up to the diving blocks. So what’s the problem with what we currently take to the waves in and how did our swimmers evolve to become what we see poolside today?
[Make sure you scroll to the bottom of this article to see some of the incredible brands making waves in the swimwear seascape!]
A brief history of the swimsuit
Beachwear began in the Victorian era with the ‘seaside walking dress,’ a highly fashionable outfit consisting of a long sleeved button-up blouse and a full skirt. It wasn’t until 1907, when the inventor of synchronized swimming, Annette Kellerman, was charged with indecency for wearing a bathing suit without a collar or buttons on a Boston beach, that a more form-fitting model was seen. This paved the way for the familiar one-piece, and in 1916, Jantzen introduced the ‘swimming suit’ - a range of figure-hugging garments featuring shorter shorts. By 1920, long sleeves and covered legs were gone, but modesty was still required and arrests were made if women’s swimwear was too short.
In the 1930s, styles edged upwards and became more form-fitting. The first bikini appeared in 1946, famously marketed as the swimsuit that revealed ‘everything about a girl except her mother’s maiden name.’ Nylon and Lycra were introduced in the 1960s: swimsuits were form-fitting but with stretch , and unbeknownst to all, the ecological problem with swimwear had begun. Trends and styles have evolved ever since, but it is only recently that they have begun to encompass environmental awareness.
So what's the problem with swimwear today?
The problem is plastic. Whether you call them bathers, swimmers, togs, a swimsuit or one-piece, your swimsuit, will these days be made of a synthetic fabric derived from petroleum.Lycra, polyester and nylon are perfect fabrics for swimwear because they stretch across the body and dry quickly. They’re also cheap to produce and fast fashion has come to rely on them heavily. In 2016 alone, 65 million tons of plastic was produced for these materials. Not being biodegradable, these fabrics eventually end up in landfill (at best). There’s just no way to dispose of them in an environmentally sound way. As well as the swimsuits themselves, there’s also the plastic poly bags they come in and the plastic hygiene liner in the gusset. It all adds up.
Econyl recovers fishing nets and ocean plastics and turns then into nylon suitable for making swimwear
Making it Better
Reformation aims to avoid the use of synthetic fibres like these, and it’s not alone in its pursuit of a more sustainable alternative. An increasing number of brands are now looking for more environmentally friendly solutions, and extending this to accessories and beach essentials as well as the swimwear itself. The Better Packaging Co. has joined the good fight too, now providing compostable hygiene stickers for swimsuits and home compostable poly bags to protect the garments.
An increasing number of brands, are now using recycled nylon produced from ocean and landfill waste (branded Econyl), which is certainly a better option for the time being. While still not biodegradable, at least no virgin plastic is being produced to make it and waste is being recycled in the process. But, as the history of the swimsuit illustrates, while the most sustainable option will likely always be your 'birthday suit' there'll always be a new wave coming ...