Bodysuits & Boots: Early Swimsuits for Women

Long before bikinis were invented, American men and women sought relief from summer’s oppressive humidity by going to the beach. Today, you can simply slip into the Speedo of your choice, slather on the SFP and enjoy the waves. If you were a woman living a hundred years ago, dressing for a day at the beach wasn’t quite so simple.

Two sisters, Dorothea and Maryal Knox, wearing the typical swimming attire for women the early 20th century. They stand in the surf at Rye Beach, NY, ca.1900. Image courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Harvard University.
Two sisters, Dorothea and Maryal Knox, wearing the typical swimming attire for women the early 20th century. They stand in the surf at Rye Beach, NY, ca.1900. Image courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Harvard University.

Bathing suits at the time resembled gowns more than bikinis. In the early 1900s, women’s swimsuits consisted of multiple layers: dark wool tights, knee-length bloomers, a sailor-style blouse with balloon sleeves, a belt or sash, and full, billowing skirt. The average woman’s swimsuit used seven to ten yards of fabric, depending on the style. Swimming shoes or boots completed the ensemble.

Unlike today, the swimsuits women wore in the 19th and early 20th centuries weren’t widely manufactured and sold in stores. Some municipal pools rented nondescript gray swimming dresses that women could wear and return after dipping into the pool on days designated “ladies only.”

Page from Newcomb Endicott & Co. spring catalog, circa 1902. Courtesy of Peggy. Check out her wonderfully restored images of vintage knitting and sewing patterns.
Page from Newcomb Endicott & Co. spring catalog, ca.1902. Courtesy of Peggy. Check out her vintage knitting and sewing patterns.

But most women typically knitted or sewed their own swimsuits–and those of their family–which they sported at the beach. Popular fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar reported on the latest swimwear fashions and published trendy patterns. They recommended wool and flannel as the best choices as they believed those fabrics best insulated the body against cold water.

This early bathing suit permitted women to frolic in the surf with men in public while preserving their modesty and obeying social customs. Unlike public pools which segregated men from women by holding gender-specific swim times, on public beaches men and women swam together. In some cases, women learned the basic mechanics of swimming from interacting with men in the water.

Men and women swimming in the surf at Rockaway Beach, NY, 1900. Photo by Charles E. Bolles. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Men and women swimming in the surf at Rockaway Beach, NY, 1900. Photo by Charles E. Bolles. Courtesy Library of Congress.

But the women’s swimsuits made even dog-paddling quite difficult. The long voluminous skirts often became tangled around women’s legs in the water. Since the suits were made from such heavy, water-absorbing fabrics, even if a woman knew how to swim, the weighted fabric could drag her down or trap her in the undertow. Each week, newspaper headlines recounted numerous deaths–mostly of women–from drowning at beaches and lakes.

Is it any wonder? Can you imagine diving in a swimsuit that covered you neck to knee—in wool, no less, with a full skirt and sometimes a corset constricting your lungs?

Stereocard of woman diving in a standard swimsuit. J.S. Johnston ca.1892. Courtesy Library of Congress.

As reformers advocated the health benefits of moderate exercise for women in the early 1900s, some began to ask for swimsuit reform. As part of that movement, in 1903, Lucille Eaton Hill, director of physical training at Wellesley College, published a book, Athletic and Out-door Sports for Women. Like the home-exercise routines published by Fitness, Shape, or Women’s Health today, Hill’s book praised exercise for women and aimed to teach women proper form.

Instructional image from chapter, "Swimming," in Hill's book, Athletics and Out-door Sports for Women, 1903.
Instructional image from chapter, “Swimming,” in Hill’s book, Athletics and Out-door Sports for Women, 1903.

In the chapter “Swimming,” author Edwin Sandys* studied female swimmers, noting their inability to move freely in the water. In order to understand how women’s swimming costumes affected their range of movement, he put on a woman’s bathing suit and jumped into the water. He struggled and sank almost immediately.

Later, recounting his harrowing experience, he noted, “Not until then did I rightly understand what a serious matter a few feet of superfluous cloth might become in the water.” Sandys’ instructional chapter on swimming raised awareness about the hazards women’s swimsuits posed. That, coupled with the tragic drowning of hundreds of women and children in a shipwreck off the coast of New York in 1904, prompted many reformers to advocate for swimsuit reform and mandatory swim classes for women. Instead of layered dresses with ballooning skirts, tight waists and petticoats, reformers proposed that women wear a one-piece, loose-fitting garment, made of sturdy cloth like denim, in the water. It resembled a square sack with arm and leg holes which a woman wore over dark tights.

Jane Magrann, ca.1916, likely taken at Lakeland or Parkland, PA. Courtesy of her great grandson, Kevin Dawson, Ph.D.

A little more than a decade later, young women wore variations of that “modernized” swimsuit. Sixteen-year-old Jane Magrann boldly poses in a homemade variation of a modern swimsuit circa 1916. To contemporary viewers, Magrann’s swimsuit seems modest. Many sundresses reveal more today. At the time, however, wearing a swimsuit that fully exposed arms and bare knees (out of the water) was considered risqué. Public decency laws forbade women and men from lounging on the beach in swimsuits.  Police and beach censors arrested hundreds of men and women every year for violating ordinances–in some areas, through the 1940s!

So, when did women stop wearing bodysuits, homemade swimming dresses, and boots to the beach? How did form-fitting swimsuits become popular and widely accepted in mainstream America? Learn more about the young Australian woman who first revolutionized women’s swimwear and began to reshape cultural ideals here.

*Note: Edwin Sandys, the author of “Swimming,” is not Sir Edwin Sandys (1561-1629), of British Parliament.