*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian
This lyric is from a novelty song written by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss and recorded by Brian Highland, way back in 1960. (listen here) It’s definitely an oldie, and although probably not a golden oldie, this phrase is in common parlance, and is used here to introduce a blog on the history of the swimsuit. Anything to take you away from a dull, grey January, right?
To begin with, let’s discuss terminology…..it was originally referred to as a bathing suit. Swimming in the recreational sense that we know it today didn’t even begin to be considered popular until early in the 20th century. People bathed or swam privately, and au naturel was the style.
“In the eighteenth century, the idea of a retreat to the seaside for bathing grew more attractive as the benefits of water, fresh air, and exercise were extolled.”i The bathing gown was appropriate attire for women. “However, immersing oneself completely was discouraged. This was deemed particularly important for women as activity in water was not seen as sufficiently feminine. For bathing, women would wear loose, open gowns, that were similar to the chemise. These bathing gowns were more comfortable to wear in the water, especially when compared to more restrictive day clothes. The bathing gown [seen to the right] is from 1767 and belonged to Martha Washington, the wife of then-Continental Army commander, and later the first US president, George Washington. The blue and white checked gown is made from linen and is in an unfitted shift style. Small lead weights are sewn into each quarter of the dress, just above the hem. This was to ensure the dress did not float up in the water, helping women to maintain their modesty. It is known that Martha Washington travelled in the summers of 1767 and 1769 to the famed mineral springs in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, to absorb the apparent health benefits.”ii Given the sheer fabric seen here, there would have been nothing modest about it when wet, so it’s presumed that Martha bathed privately.
By the 19th century, swimming became more popular, more for recreation than for health benefits. At the most, women paddled in the water—exercising was seen as unladylike. Given their attire, they could do little more without drowning! Sometimes they waded out (not very far) holding on to a rope. “Along with wool, swimsuits from this era were also made from canvas and flannel, which, naturally, were far too heavy for real swimming, but which at least had the virtue of being sturdy and, most importantly, didn’t turn transparent when wet. Some gowns even had weighted hems to prevent the fabric from riding up mid-swim, saving women from suffering the embarrassment of unwittingly showing some leg.”iii In addition to providing modesty, these swimsuits covered up all your skin so there was no chance of having any tan, which was seen looking like a farmer. NOT cool!
Interestingly, these 1800s bathing suits were two-piece! In this context, the two pieces were a long dress over ankle length pants. The Victorians even used bathing machines to preserve privacy. These were small houses that were pulled out into the water. A lady could enter beach side in full attire, change inside into her bathing costume, and then emerge out the back into the water to bathe in relative privacy.
These two images show the progression of bathing suits—the first is from the mid 1800s and the second from the turn of the 20th century. The dresses and pants have both shortened, and arms are now visible. Although these women have bare legs, keeping the legs covered with long black stockings and wearing shoes was more common at first. The sailor suit, seen on some of the women in the second picture, was popular.
Men also bathed or swam, and in general, their attire was less restrictive. “Nineteenth century men were able to escape the restrictions of swimwear for much longer than women. Nude male bathing in public places continued into the second half of the century, although times and places were regulated. Experiments with woolen swimming drawers began in the 1840s, but were not entirely successful because of the tendency of the drawers to droop and drop when waterlogged. This lamentable state of affairs led to the introduction of 1870 of a short-sleeved, all-in-one costume which covered the body from neck to knees. Striped costumes were especially popular. Although young boys and older men continued to wear drawers only, most men preferred the more substantial costume. Two-piece costumes consisting of a vest and drawers were available at the end of the century.”iv
Big strides were made when Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman became one of the first women to attempt to swim the English Channel in 1905. “Her passion and courage led her to design a one-piece, form-fitting swimsuit that was more aerodynamic than the bulky, heavy swimsuit styles of that day. Known as the “Annette Kellermann,” these one-piece suits changed swimwear forever.”v This is not the end of the story. “In 1907, [she] was arrested on a beach in Boston, Massachusetts, and charged with indecent exposure because she’d been wearing a knee-length swimsuit that resembled a unitard and showed her arms, legs, and neck.”vi
The revolution continued in 1912 when women first competed in swimming at the Olympic games. This image of the British freestyle swimming team that won the gold medal, dressed in silk suits, is particularly amusing for the juxtaposition of their attire next to that of the woman in the center!
Annette Kellerman and the 1912 Olympics notwithstanding, there was still a great deal of pushback in the 1920s and 1930s to showing too much skin on the beach. “Something had to be done before America fell into irretrievable debauchery, so many municipalities passed laws enforcing the length of swimsuits, often prohibiting anything shorter than six inches above the knee. Swimsuit police were employed to make sure swimmers didn’t break the rules, and if they found a woman with a swimsuit that was too short, she was either sent home to change or forced to cover up. Beach police in Chicago found a clever method of ensuring that patrons maintained their modesty: a “beach tailor” who could be summoned to sew up oversize armholes or affix a layer of fabric to the bottoms of skirts deemed too short or the tops of necklines deemed too low. … Women weren’t the only ones whose beachwear was policed. On the grounds that no one wanted to see “gorillas on the beaches,” the city council of Atlantic City, New Jersey passed laws mandating shirts at the shore, and beaches around the country followed suit. Men who went topless could be fined and forced to put their shirts back on, but starting in 1937, many of these local rules were overturned and men could once again enjoy the sunshine on their bare chests.”vii
By 1940 the term swimsuit came into vogue as styles became more and more streamlined. During World War II, wartime rationing encouraged designers to use less fabric. Maybe the designer of the bikini was only doing his patriotic duty?! “It wasn’t until after World War II that two Frenchmen invented the modern bikini, which shows the navel and was the next major stepping stone in the history of swimwear. In 1946 Jacques Heim first invented the ‘Atome’, named so because it was a very small two-piece bathing suit. Then an engineer named Louis Réard, made sure his bathing suit was even smaller and named his two-piece outfit the ‘Bikini’, after the Bikini island where a nuclear test had taken place that year. Réard wanted the excitement about his new Bikini swimwear to be just as ‘explosive’….
The Frenchman was right: it did shock the world seeing the sexy bikini on a Parisian catwalk for the first time. The invention made everyone forget about the ‘Atome’ and ‘Bikini’ became the generic name for two-piece bathing suits in Europe. It took a while for the rest of the world to take a liking for bikinis and they were initially banned in the USA and Catholic countries.” Apparently Réard’s bikini was so shocking that regular models would not wear it, so he had to hire a Parisian showgirl named Micheline Bernardini to show it to the world.
It’s tempting to go on with this history, but you can consult the resources listed below to learn more. Let me end by noting that while these photographs are great, nothing beats looking at the real swimsuits themselves. University Archives and Special Collections is fortunate to have a few of these in the Beardsley, Montgomery, and Gordon Families Collection, MSS 297. These are all made of wool, and while only the green and black one is actually dated to 1920, they are probably all from the same general time period.
Three images above, MSS 297-23-5, front, side, and detail views. Can you imagine having to button your swimming suit? This suit is a wee bit more modest in that it covers the shoulders/upper arms.
Three images below, MSS 297-16-3, front, side, and detail of the embroidery. Although not shown here in detail here, if you look closely at the first photograph you can see that this suit also has the buttoned shoulder.
Three images below, MSS 297-16-6, front, side, and detail views. Note that this suit only has a single button.
I would not wish to swim, or even bathe, in any of these wool items, but they are very interesting to see. If you’d like to see any of these three in person, contact University Archivist Jennifer Greene in advance and arrange for a showing.
i Baclawski, p. 30
iv Baclaswki, p. 31
“45 Interesting Vintage Photographs of Bathing Machines from the Victorian Era.” Vintage Everyday website, April 30, 2015.
Baclawski, Karen. The Guide to Historic Costume. London: B.T. Batsford, 1995. General Collection GT507 .B33 1995.
Booth, Jessica. “From the 1800s to Now: Here’s How Swimsuits Have Changed Over the Years.” Insider.com website, July 16, 2021.
“Did You Know: In the 1920s, Police Could Arrest Women for Exposing Their Legs in One Piece Bathing Suits?” Vintage Everyday website, November 3, 2016.
Faust, Ella. “The Evolution of the Swimsuit.” CR Fashion Book website, June 29, 2020.
Harris, Karen. “Bikini Laws: When Women Could Be Arrested for Wearing The Wrong Swimsuit.” History Daily website.
“History of Bathing Suits.” Victoriana Magazine online.
“History of Swimwear.” Swimwear Shack website.
Ibbetson, Fiona. “A History of Women’s Swimwear.” Fashion History Timeline, a project of the History of Art Department at the Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York, 2022.
Komar, Marlen. “Women’s Swimwear Photos from the 1800s Until Today.” Bustle website, February 14, 2016.
Picone, Kiri. “Appreciate Your Bikini: A Brief History of Women’s Swimwear.” Ati (All That’s Interesting) website, May 30, 2015.
“The Radical History of the Swimsuit.” Google Arts and Culture.
“Swimsuit Police to the Rescue!” Recollections website.
“Swimsuits Throughout History: Swimwear for Women, Men & Competition.” Swimmingpool.com website.
“Women being arrested for wearing one piece bathing suits, 1920s.” Rare Historical Photos website.