A Brief History
On August 6, 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim across the English Channel. An American with German parents, Ederle had already won a Gold Medal and 2 Bronze Medals in the 1924 Olympics when she dared the cold, rough waters of the Channel.
Many women over the years have become famous while wearing swimsuits, whether in movies, posters or in competitive swimming. Here we list 10 of the most famous women in bathing gear.
10. Gertrude Ederle.
Already a famous swimmer when she swam the 20+ miles across the English Channel, Ederle’s time of 14 hours and 34 minutes stood as the women’s record until 1950. Not only that, but her time bested the men’s record by 2 hours! Her feat was celebrated in a ticker-tape parade in New York City attended by 2 million people. Ederle, known as Trudy or the “Queen of the Waves,” then starred in the 1927 silent film Swim Girl, Swim but only went on to have a so-so entertainment and appearances career. She died at age 98 in 2003.
9. Diana Nyad.
In 2013 at age 64, Diana Nyad shocked the world by becoming the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida. Already well known as a long-distance swimmer, Nyad had completed other feats such as swimming all the way around Manhattan Island and from the Bahamas to Florida. Not surprisingly, she makes a living as a motivational speaker.
8. Esther Williams.
Esther Williams missed out on her chance to swim in the 1940 Olympics because of World War II, but right after the war she made it big in Hollywood swimming on screen in “aqua-musicals.” She also starred in television specials featuring swim shows and, of course, was a purveyor of swim suits and swimming pools. She died at age 91 in 2013.
7. Maureen O’Sullivan.
In 1932 Maureen O’Sullivan played “Jane” to Johnny Weissmuller’s “Tarzan” in Tarzan the Ape Man and again in 1934’s Tarzan and His Mate. Her loin-cloth-bottomed 2-piece jungle swimsuit was probably pretty racy for the early 1930. It is almost enough to make you forget she is Mia Farrow’s mom.
6. Ursula Andress.
The first Bond Girl is perhaps the best of them all! The opening scene of Dr. No (1962) where Andress comes out of the ocean wearing her white bikini is considered by many to be one of the sexiest movie clips of all time. Fact: Andress was married to John Derek. He later married Linda Evans and then Bo Derek. 3 incredible beauties married to 1 guy. Wow.
5. Betty Grable.
Not racy by today’s standards, Betty Grable’s photo in which she wears a one-piece suit showing off her world-famous legs was the number one pin-up of American troops in World War II, making her an immortal piece of Americana. She died of cancer in 1973, aged only 56.
4. Pamela Anderson.
Another great Canadian import (along with Molson, Labatt and Moosehead), Pamela Anderson hit the waves on television’s Baywatch and was probably responsible for procuring a huge chunk of the show’s audience. Despite her cheery onscreen persona, Anderson revealed in 2014 that she had been sexually abused by a female babysitter when she was a child, raped at age 12 and then gang raped at age 14. Her February 1990 feature as Playboy’s Playmate of the Month helped launch her career. Fact: Before appearing on Baywatch, she was the “Tool Time Girl” on the television show Home Improvement.
3. Bo Derek.
The unforgettable scene in the movie 10 in which Bo Derek runs down a beach in slow motion was captured in a poster and did for Bo Derek in the 1980s what Farrah Fawcett’s poster did for her in the 1970s. A clue as to exactly how “hot” this girl is?: Before marrying Bo, John Derek was married to 2 of the most beautiful women in the world, but he stayed married to Bo for 22 years until his death. Fact: Her birth name was Mary Cathleen Collins.
2. Brigitte Bardot.
After the 1957 film And God Created Woman, Brigitte Bardot became the “sex kitten” men dreamed of. Known by her initials (BB), Bardot is perhaps the person most responsible for popularizing the bikini. She began wearing them in 1952, and created a photographer frenzy in 1953 when she wore one on a beach in Southern France at the Cannes Film Festival. Like Pamela Anderson, “BB” is also an animal rights activist. Unfortunately, she has repeatedly gotten into trouble for her anti-immigrant stance, especially in regard to Muslim immigrants in France.
1. Farrah Fawcett.
Her 1974 poster in which she is wearing a red one-piece suit is hands down the most famous photo of a girl in a bathing suit. That poster sold millions of copies and propelled Farrah Fawcett to a television (Charlie’s Angels) and movie career. Sadly, she died in 2009 of cancer. Fact: Her actual first name was Ferrah. Fact: Farrah picked the shot that made her famous. The publisher was not so sure about the photo because he wanted her in a bikini, but Farrah had made a deal in which she had the final say.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who would you add to the list? (Christie Brinkley? Tracy Caulkins? Racquel Welch? Rita Hayworth?) Do we need a sequel or what? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Kennedy, Sarah. The Swimsuit: A History of Twentieth-Century Fashion. Carlton Books, 2010.