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Life is too short to waste it on being in a constant state of beach body readiness. My régime for getting swimsuit-ready largely consists of applying sunscreen, jumping into a caftan and mixing a gin-and-tonic – and there's the distinct possibility I'll need a refill once I've clicked through Shape magazine's slideshow of "Best Celebrity Bikini Butt Selfies."

For a timely reminder that body shaming is the furthest thing from the origins of beach chic, consider a new exhibition at London's Fashion and Textile Museum. In Riviera Style, guest curator and historian Christine Boydell traces stylistic and fabric innovations on the Côte d'Azur and the English Riviera from 1900 to the present. It's a story told through tomboy Breton tops, glamorous caftans and crisp playsuits.

It was around the beginning of the 20th century that "resort" first became a leisure pursuit and a separate clothing season focused on more than swimsuits. Resort was about dressing for the entirety of a waterside vacation and its timing was dependent on one's proximity to Florida (December), the Riviera (May) or urban beach resorts like Coney Island (July).

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"The seaside holiday was a marvellous opportunity for dressing up, especially for the young," asserted Steven Braggs and Diane Harris in their entertaining social history Sun, Sea and Sand. "Holiday makers could leave behind their drab office suits or factory overalls and go to the sea looking like movie stars." Promenading the pier was one of the first catwalks and dressing for this leisure pursuit was its own sport.

Back then, women experienced much less bathing-suit fitting-room dread. Early water costumes were too uncomfortable and cumbersome for après-swim activities and, as such, were supplemented with a fabulous resort cover-up like a swimming robe or beach pajamas. The latter were enormous, airy flared pants inspired by the cut of sailor's trousers and popularized in the 1920s by Sara Murphy, a Riviera-dwelling American expat. Along with a slew of accessories like fitted turbans, these became the resort uniform of the 1930s the world over.

We've been gradually uncovering ever since. The exhibition tells the story of the incredible shrinking swimsuit (both hers and his) and the journey skinward from Victorian bloomers to itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny yellow polka-dot bikinis and the men's brief known as the Speedo.

Swimming competitors at the Pan Am games will be wearing Speedo's latest LZRs, full-cover, futuristic versions of men's original bathing costumes – think circus strongmen in belted, knee-length singlets – but made of high-tech compression fabrics, not scratchy wool jersey that sags when wet. As fabrics have evolved and attitudes toward modesty have relaxed, bathing suits have become less about performance or fit and more about showing skin. The fitness craze of the 1980s saw resort style abandoned for the cult of the body and awkward triangle bikinis best suited to Sports Illustrated models.

Men may have it tougher than women. As women's bikinis got skimpier, men's figure-hugging racerback costumes similarly shrank down. Lastex briefs made with stretchy yarns appeared in the 1920s; nylon entered the water in the 1950s; and the following decades brought us Spandex and Lycra. Enter Jantzen, who, by the 1950s, was the maker of Sean Connery's snug Goldfinger and Thunderball trunks (slogan: "the suit that changed bathing into swimming").

These days, the bikini still dominates women's beachwear, but we have a larger array of options. Brands like Esther Williams thrive by offering reproductions of the aqua-musical star's demure halter maillot style. Jessica Rey's eponymous line has spurred a mainstream revival of sculpted, supportive 1940s-inspired pieces featuring retro peplum tops. Celebrities may be taking bikini butt selfies but it's a return to coverups that defines women's swimwear for summer 2015.

Men aren't so lucky. As the men of Magic Mike XXL strut their multi-packs at the multiplex, spare a sympathetic thought for the average guy with a dad bod's worth of spare tires, sucking in his gut in vain. Make all the Mrs. Roper jokes you want, but at least women still have caftans.

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