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Leather bikinis

Design comes around full circle and the 20th-century popularity of the bikini was not a new phenomenon! Although most evidence for Roman clothing comes from leather shoes, one unusual style of leather clothing has survived in London. An almost perfect pair of 1st-century bikini briefs was found in 1953 down a Roman well in Queen Street (GM144).

Archaeological leather survives remarkably well in waterlogged conditions. Large quantities of leather goods were being made in the Walbrook area, as both large numbers of leather artefacts, waste leather and leather-working tools have been found in what was the industrial zone of Roman London.

String bikini briefs from London
String bikini briefs from London

For many years these bikini briefs were unique but then a more richly decorated example was found at Shadwell, east of London, and other fragments of Roman string briefs have now been found elsewhere in the City. All but one example (which comes from Mainz in Germany) have come from the domestic rubbish dumps of Roman London.

Roman leather bikini briefs
The best-surviving example of leather briefs from the Roman world

The Queen Street example is the most complete and carefully made. It is made from a single piece of leather, hour-glass in shape with adjustable side fastenings. There are hems around the legs. Each corner is reinforced on the inside with two rectangles of leather with a lace looped through.

One fastening knot remains, where the garment was tied at the left hip, and shows that it had been tied in a ‘granny’ knot. The front is plain while some of the others have openwork punched designs.

The London examples have deeply defined stretch marks across the front panels indicating that they have been worn; the size would indicate that they were worn by teenage girls.

Statue of girl wearing leather bikini from Renne
Roman statue from Renne, France

Depictions of bikini-like garments suggest a relationship with acrobats and other sports. A Roman statuette from France depicts a female acrobat wearing the briefs, no top and protective knee-pads like today’s skateboarders.

However, an alternative suggestion was that the garments may have been worn as everyday under-clothing or as a sanitary garment.

For further information about dress, see London fashion in Roman Londoners.

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