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.

The “Million Dollar Mermaid” Revolutionizes Women’s Swimwear

An Australian woman, Annette Kellerman, sparked the first major revolution in women’s swimwear in America. In some ways, the modern swimsuit—and her future stardom—grew from her early failure.

Champion swimmer Annette Kellerman, posing for a publicity photo in a union suit, in her native Australia, ca. 1905.
Champion swimmer Annette Kellerman, posing for a publicity photo in a swimsuit in her native Australia, ca. 1905. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1904, at age nineteen, already a national swim champion, Kellerman captured worldwide attention when she attempted to swim the English Channel. At the time, the public followed open water swimming as faithfully as many Americans follow baseball and football today. The English Channel swim stood as grueling test of physical and mental endurance. Most believed that only elite male athletes could withstand its freezing waters, swift tides, forceful currents, and unpredictable squalls. While many athletes had tried to swim from England to France, at that point, only one man, Matthew Webb, had completed the swim. It took him nearly 22 hours.

No one believed a woman could swim the English Channel. And Kellerman didn’t swim the distance.

Typical bathing suits for a family at the beach, ca.1910. Courtesy of Kym Pichon, personal collection.
Typical bathing suits for a family at the beach, ca.1910. Courtesy of Kym Pichon, personal collection.

But her ability to endure the bitterly cold saltwater for over nine hours, along with an entrepreneurial spirit, “plucky” attitude, and bold swimsuit, created a media sensation that forever changed swimsuits for women.

In the early 1900s, social custom in the US and England required women to wear dark, layered swimsuits with full, long skirts, tights, and shoes on the beach. Men, too, were expected to wear shirts over their trunks.

Following custom in Australia, Kellerman swam in a dark one-piece swimsuit that exposed her thighs. After her second Channel-swimming attempt in 1905, a royal English audience asked to meet the fearless swimmer. Preparing her for the meeting, officials asked Kellerman to wear her swimsuit but they instructed her to cover her legs, to heed English propriety. Instead of donning the customary long skirt, Kellerman ingeniously sewed the tops of black silk tights around the leg openings of her Australian swimsuit. The seam joining the union suit to the tights is visible at Kellerman’s mid-thigh.

Annette Kellerman posing in the swimsuit she invented, 1919. Image courtesy of the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress. Rights status not evaluated.

Her action mollified conservatives and generated a media buzz. Vaudeville theater owners in New York and Boston contracted her to do a swimming and diving performance. Kellerman transformed into a celebrity and the homemade one-piece bathing suit became her trademark. She wore the sleek black bodysuit, which the media christened the “Kellerman,” in all of her performances.

Many early vaudeville acts catered primarily to a male audience and contained burlesque overtones. Men flocked to watch the curvaceous Kellerman–tightly sheathed in silk–demonstrate a dive or swimming stroke in a large water-filled tank onstage. Her manager placed mirrors around the tank so viewers could behold her from every angle. An astute woman, Kellerman knew that her swimsuit and act titillated male viewers.

Australian swim champion, Annette Kellerman, ca. 1911. Image courtesy of the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.
Australian swim champion, Annette Kellerman, ca. 1911. Image courtesy of the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

But she understood that acceptance of her swimsuit–and essentially her career–hinged on endorsement by women with middle-class sensibilities. She legitimized her outfit. By demonstrating diving and swimming techniques, she kept her act educational, justifying her one-piece swimsuit as a uniform for a professional athlete.

Kellerman also promoted swimming—and the need for a proper swimsuit—as a public health issue.  In the early 20th century, thousands of accidental drowning deaths occurred in the US annually. Most fatalities involved women and children. The heavy woolen bathing suits women were expected to wear hampered movement greatly. Kellerman explained that her tight streamlined suit enhanced mobility in the water. Its lighter weight and lack of voluminous skirts decreased women’s risk of drowning. Even the most socially conservative could not against argue those pragmatic truths.

Kellerman displayed an entrepreneurial instinct and promoted swimming as a means of enhancing feminine beauty.

Ad for Kellerman's health and beauty book, The Body Beautiful," 1911.
Ad for Kellerman’s health and beauty book, The Body Beautiful,” 1911.


Ad for the silent film, Neptune's Daughter, showing Kellerman's measurements. Fitness experts of the time labeled Kellerman as "the perfect woman."
Poster for the silent film, Neptune’s Daughter, showing Kellerman’s measurements and proclaiming her “the perfect woman.”

Capitalizing on her expertise as a swimmer and popularity in theater and silent film, she authored a syndicated newspaper column, “How To Be Beautiful,” that praised swimming as a beautifying exercise for women.

By linking swimming with women’s health and beauty, Kellerman legitimized both the streamlined bathing suit and swimming as an appropriate exercise for women. She had attracted attention of physical fitness experts, like Harvard’s Dudley Sargent, who applauded her physique, labeling her “the Perfect Woman.”

Her reputation encouraged women to learn to swim and they eagerly sought Kellerman suits. Responding to the increasing demand for the one-piece swimsuits, other manufacturers began producing Kellerman knockoffs. Soon women could purchase the sleek bodysuit in department stores across America. Previously, they had to knit or sew their own swimsuits.

Today, history remembers Kellerman as a silent film star–a celebrity athlete who turned a career in sports into a lucrative acting career in Hollywood. Her life inspired the 1952 hit movie, Million Dollar Mermaid.

The Kellerman one-piece suit revolutionized women’s swimwear, but it still covered women’s legs. When did the legless swimsuit evolve? As open water swimming became a popular pastime and widely followed sport, women began swimming competitively and breaking swim records previously set by men. Women in the US swam their way to international fame in the 1910s and 1920s. The success of the modern one-piece swimsuit is tied to their stories.

Swimwear to Shape Bodies and Minds?

Retro swimsuit styles are resurfacing. Are past cultural attitudes about women being revived as well?

The 2013 line of Lisa Blue Swimwear modeled during the Mercedes Benz Swim Fashion Week, Miami Beach, 2012. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

At the Mercedes Benz Swim Fashion Week showcasing 2013 styles, Lisa Burke–designing for the Australian brand Lisa Blue–was one of several prominent designers who drew inspiration from patterns and styles of 1950s and 1960s.

The 2013 bathing suits resemble those worn by pinup girls of the past–with a twist. Some manufacturers are designing swimsuits from high-tech compression fabrics to shape and enhance “feminine silhouettes.” Curvallure, the latest line by the American brand Jantzen, utilizes Lycra® Beauty–a fabric engineered to provide the “newest evolution of shaping” in its full body control swimwear. Jantzen’s new shaping suits feature built-in push-up bras–to enhance cup sizes up to DD–and slimming panels to compress the rest of the body. Jantzen officials claim that new suits provide “what confident women of today want from their swimwear”–presumably more cleavage, flatter stomachs, smaller bums.

Aesthetically–as a fan of 1950s fashions–the revived swimsuit styles appeal to me. As a woman who loves to swim but feels increasing self-conscious of jiggling as she ages, the compressing suits intrigue me. But beneath intrigue lurks concern and mild uneasiness: Are these new slimming suits so different from the constrictive girdles of the past? Does the return to retro fashion reflect a revival of previous conservative attitudes about women’s place in society?

A global consumer swimwear study commissioned by INVISTA, a corporation whose brands cover products ranging from polymers and chemical intermediates to fibers and fabrics–like Lycra and Spandex–revealed that in addition to comfort and shaping performance, women want “more emotional satisfaction from their swimwear.”

Emotional satisfaction–from swimsuits? Really?

Purchasing swimwear from socially responsible companies might produce a feeling of satisfaction. Some swimsuit brands contribute financially to environmental protection: the Australian company, Lisa Blue, for instance, donates 25% of net profits to protecting dolphins and whales. Others promote their commitment to sustainability. The small Pennsylvania-based company Aqua Green manufactures fashionable “Eco Swim” bathing suits made from Repreve, a brand of high-quality yarn engineered from 100% recycled materials. Haute couture designer Linda Loudermilk created a luxury eco swimwear line made entirely from compostable material.

But the emphasis of mainstream, multi-million dollar corporations, like Jantzen, on designing swimsuits from technologically-engineered shaping material suggests that swimwear conglomerates equate women’s “emotional satisfaction” not with philanthropy but with body image. And not just any body image–but a slimmer version of the traditional bombshell idealized in the post-WWII era.

Consider this image featured in Jantzen’s 2013 new collection catalog.

Featured swimsuit from Jantzen’s 2013 collection.

The model, sporting Jantzen’s signature classic red, is positioned in paradise with erect palm fronds silhouetted against a background of sparkling blue seas. A breeze lifts her long blond hair as she caresses a classical statue with a near orgasmic look on her face. What is the underlying message here? That her ecstasy is induced from wearing the Jantzen swimsuit?

Historically, Jantzen commissioned artists to illustrate eye-catching advertising campaigns that visually associated its swimsuits with a desirable lifestyle and often featured women as centerpieces for visual consumption. Consider the similarities between Jantzen’s 2013 image and this ad of Jantzen’s Red Diving Girl, illustrated by C. Coles Phillips in 1921.

Jantzen advertisement illustrated by C. Coles Phillips, Life magazine, 1921.

Like the 2013 image, this ad situates a young woman in the foreground, with swimsuit hugging her slim but curvaceous figure. Jantzen’s trademarked Red Diving Girl presents herself to the viewer as she scans the horizon for something–or someone. In the background, among balustrades with lush plants that suggest tropical luxury, a swimsuit-clad man surveys the Diving Girl from behind. The text notes, “moments of relaxation between swims–yours, if you wear a Jantzen.”

While the 1921 ad notes the suit’s functionality as swimwear–“no loose skirts or ‘trappings’ to impede swimming”–the 2013 ads present the swimsuit as a means of showcasing the female body. The woman is posed passively and seductively–a sexual object. The video Jantzen uses to showcase its 2013 collection features closeups of a pouting blond’s mid section reminiscent of Sports Illustrated‘s swimsuit issue. What message does it send when swimwear companies eroticize women in swimsuits–especially when their customers are real women whose body types don’t resemble the model’s?

The media bombards us with images of super models who represent the ideal woman’s body. Most women can never attain that impossible ideal naturally. But starting with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue each February, magazines, network news and blogs feature strategies, new diets and exercise programs promising to tone muscle, shrink cellulite and help women to be “jiggle free” in their bathing suits. Americans face a very serious cultural problem of obesity but offer these articles emphasize not health but “looking sexy” in a swimsuit. Even websites like WebMD offer women–not men–tips on how to prepare physically and psychologically–for swimsuit season.

In our culture, the diet and beauty industries profit enormously from  reinforcing women’s physical insecurities. Each year advertisers promote new creams, pills, foods, and constricting shape wear to help women conform–literally–to an idealized vision of physical perfection. Advertisements create a hyper-awareness of women’s bodies prompting feelings of inadequacy and shame in those whose appearance deviates from the ideal.

From the start, Jantzen’s advertising campaigns for women’s swimwear underscored female sexuality and depicted an idealized lifestyle–one in which consumption of products produced happiness. The swimsuit looks attractive on the beautiful model and the model appears so joyous or sexy—that must somehow translate to the consumer. We expect this from advertising.

But such sexually-charged advertising coupled with the use of restrictive fabric to control women’s bodies is troubling as it correlates to larger issues of controlling women in our culture. In America, as the presidential election draws near, some politicians have uttered shocking remarks about women. In August, Missouri’s Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin uttered the now infamous line: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” In mid-September, when interviewing Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who may enter the gubernatorial race, the Chicago Sun-Times asked whether she could serve as governor and still raise her kids. Outraged by the sexist question, “Name it. Change it.” has launched a petition against the Sun-Times.

What does this have to do with new swimwear styles? On the surface, it may appear to have little connection. But in the past, fashion trends correlate directly to women’s social role. It prompts the question: does the return to retro fashions and prominent use of technology to shape women’s bodies reflect a deeper desire to control women culturally?

Can a Swimsuit Build Confidence in Men? The Long and Short of Styles (Part 1)

One sweltering July day in 1940, a group of young swimmers in South Boston staggered out of the surf. While lounging on the beach some lowered the swimsuit straps from their shoulders, rolling their tops to their waistlines to bask in sunshine.

Police promptly arrested them for indecent exposure. From 1910 through the 1920s, women’s swimwear altered drastically–from long full woolen dresses to tight one-piece suits–but conservatives reluctantly accepted the change and police frequently arrested young women for violating public decency laws (more on that to come).

Advertisement for men’s and women’s swimwear, Vogue, 1930.

But the swimmers arrested for being topless in 1940 were men. Surprised?

Today, we expect men to swim in some type of suit bottom–full trunks, fitted trunks, jammers, mini Speedo briefs, or high tech new compression suits (more on that to follow). Whatever the style of swimsuit, Americans accept that men will swim and sunbath topless. But, in the scope of history, our culture sanctioned shirtless swimming for men a relatively short time ago.

Los Angeles rescinded its ordinance against shirtless swimsuits in 1929 and the Vogue ad illustrates how men rolled the tops of one-piece suits to expose their backs and chests. But most US cities retained and enforced rules prohibiting men from being topless in public—even lying face down on the beach.

Pattern for men’s swimsuit, Utopia Yarn Book, circa 1910. Courtesy Peggy, Iva Rose Reproductions.

Initially in America, men–like women–wore heavy swimsuits made from wool or flannel—materials known to insulate from cold. Most women sewed or knitted swimsuits for themselves and their families from patterns published in magazines. A typical men’s swimsuit required six hanks of yarn–more than many  contemporary sweaters.

In 1913, members of the Portland (Oregon) Rowing Club complained to John A. Zehntbauer and Carl Jantzen, the owners of the Portland Knitting Company (PKC), that their homemade suits felt too heavy and fitted poorly. They inquired if PKC could create a snug and stretchy swimsuit–mimicking the one-piece suits worn by Olympians and serious competitive swimmers like Leo “Bud” Goodwin and Charlie M. Daniels.

Olympic medalists Leo “Bud” Goodwin and Charlie M. Daniels with E. J. Giannini, manager of New York Athletic Club, 1904. Section of photo by Jessie Tarbox Beals, courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

Both swimmers were legendary sports figures and heroes of the era. After the 1908 Games, Daniels held the highest number of Olympic medals won by an American in swimming until Mark Spitz in 1972. Young men idolized him and hoped to imitate him–if not in swimming, at least in style and confidence.

Zehntbauer and Jantzen developed a one-piece suit knitted with lighter-weight wool in a tight rib stitch that provided elasticity, allowing the suit mold to the body and conform to movement. The suits became popular locally–men reported swimming faster which bolstered confidence–so PKC expanded sales nationwide. In 1918, the company changed its name to Janzten and began manufacturing new form-fitting swimsuits for women as well.

Men continued to wear one-piece swimsuits throughout the 1920s. But Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller helped to forever alter styles of men’s swimwear and social norms in the 1930s. Following his Olympic career, Weissmuller starred with Esther Williams in Billy Rose’s Aquacade. In 1932 he began a long career starring as Tarzan in Hollywood films. He also became the celebrity endorser for B.V.D. swimwear.

Seen as an icon of masculine virility, Weissmuller was wildly popular with women who flocked to see his films and stare appreciatively at his muscular physique. Men, too, favored his films. The primitive and powerful masculinity Tarzan embodied reinforced traditional gender roles—reassuring to a society in flux.

B.V.D. featured Weismsuller in a series of advertisements for their new trunks with the tagline: “B.V.D. swimsuits… improve your stroke . . .and your morale!”  The trunks, called “Samoan briefs,” didn’t sell well instantly, perhaps because laws prohibited men from wearing the trunks in public.

Johnny Weissmuller posed with fellow actor, George O’Brien, circa 1935. Photo from Brian’s Drive in Theater.

But advertising research revealed that men wanted to copy Weissmuller’s style and swagger. The average man might never resemble him physically, but he could purchase a B.V.D. swimsuit and–ads insinuated–purchase a piece of confidence by boldly sporting the new style. Realizing that conservatives needed to be persuaded to accept the suit, B.V.D. ads underscored Weissmuller’s athleticism to help legitimize its new trunks. Ads stressed that trunks “were designed under the supervision of no less an expert than Johnny Weismuller. They have an exactness of fit and proportion that makes for speedy, effortless swimming.” As Weissmuller’s fame spread, so did cultural acceptance of the standalone trunks—especially in California.

Outside of Hollywood, men continued to be arrested for wearing shirtless suits on public beaches. In Boston, New York and Chicago, women often complained in editorials about the new shirtless trunks for men. Curiously, women weren’t affronted by male nudity but by the appearance of men’s bodies. Accustomed to seeing Johnny Weissmuller’s smooth, tanned chest and lean, muscular physique, women criticized that real men were “anything but handsome with their hairy spindle-shank legs” and chests.

When New York’s municipal beaches allowed shirtless bathing for the first time in 1936, the decision provoked heated protest from women’s groups who told reporters they “had no desire to gaze upon hairy chested men.”  As a culture, we tend to think of beauty standards as applying primarily to women, but as the protests vocalized by groups of women in cities across the US reveal, men are not exempt. And as the publicity photo of Weissmuller and O’Brien illustrates, Hollywood highlighted male physicality and sexuality. However, as a whole, cultural norms do not condition men to associate their self-worth with their appearance.

Steve at Conneaut Lake, PA, 1956.

Beauty pageants like Miss America and Hollywood’s bathing beauty films fused the cultural association between swimsuits and beauty for women by presenting women as docile objects to be admired or evaluated. Hollywood films like the Tarzan series, in contrast, subtly associated the exposure of men’s bodies with heroism, action, and masculine power.

This is not to say that men don’t suffer from insecurity about their bodies but to suggest that advertising and popular films historically used swimsuits to reinforce traditional gender roles. Bathing suit-clad women became passive pinups whereas men in swimming trunks symbolized strength. By the end of the 1940s, the American public embraced shirtless swimming for men. As a young man, my grandfather sported swim trunks at Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania, in 1956, reflecting a cultural norm. Even the playful pose–flexing his biceps–reflects a larger association between swimsuits and confident action for men.

To be continued.