Drowning in Culture: Gender, Swimming & Stereotypes

According to the CDC in 2016, drowning ranks fifth among leading causes of unintentional injury death for Americans. For those under age 29, it ranks within the top three. At the end of the 20th century, reports show that men drowned more frequently than women. In the early 1900s, however, the reverse held true.

Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. "Steamer ‘Gen. Slocum’ June 15, 1904 [above]; North Brothers Island, East River, N.Y. [below]."
Pages from scrapbook showing bodies washed ashore after the General Slocum sank. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Steamer ‘Gen. Slocum’ June 15, 1904 [above]; North Brothers Island, East River, N.Y. [below].” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1855.
In 1904, when a fire broke out on the steamboat General Slocum and the boat began to sink, witnesses watched women remain aboard the burning wreckage. Hundreds of women, fearing they would drown if they jumped overboard, “waited until the flames were upon them, until they felt their flesh blister, before they took the alternative of the river.”

Their fears proved valid. Nearly all of an estimated 978 women and children who boarded the cruise died. Most drowned just a few feet from shore in relatively shallow waters.

The New York Times opined, “one of the lessons which the General Slocum horror should bring home to every woman and girl in New York City is the desirability of knowing how to swim.” While catastrophes like this commanded national attention, thousands of accidental drowning deaths–mostly women and children– occurred in the US annually.

Why could so few women swim in the early 20th century?

Some physicians and conservatives concluded that women were biologically inferior or incapable of swimming. Common cultural stereotypes about masculinity and popular philosophies like Muscular Christianity  held that men were innately predisposed to athleticism. Many saw swimming–particularly open water swimming in cold rough waters–as a masculine sport, far too challenging for women. Gender stereotypes stressed that extreme physical exertion–like open water swimming–would permanently damage women’s constitutions, damage the uterus, and cause women to become “un-sexed.”

Frederick J. Garbit, M.D., “The Woman’s Medical Companion and Guide To Health.” The Josephine Long Wishart Collection: Mother, Home, and Heaven, Courtesy the College of Wooster Special Collections.
Frederick J. Garbit, M.D., “The Woman’s Medical Companion and Guide To Health.” The Josephine Long Wishart Collection: Mother, Home, and Heaven, Courtesy the College of Wooster Special Collections.

Others realized that women’s aversion to water and unfortunate tendency to drown had less to do with biological deficiency than it did with cultural customs. In the early 1900s, cultural beliefs required modesty of women. As a result, women’s swimsuits consisted of multiple layers: dark wool tights, knee-length bloomers, a blouse with balloon sleeves, a belt or sash, and full, voluminous skirt.

Louisa Dresel and two women in bathing suits at Mingo's Beach, Beverly, Mass., 1900. Image courtesy of Schlesinger Library.
Louisa Dresel and two women in bathing suits at Mingo’s Beach, Beverly, Mass., 1900. Image courtesy of Schlesinger Library.

The average woman’s swimsuit used seven to ten yards of thick fabric. Ironically, the fear of drowning in the swimsuit that etiquette demanded them to wear caused many women to avoid learning to swim. But women ventured to bath houses located along river banks and ocean beaches to cool themselves and allow their children to play in the water.

Margaret Wessell Piersol learning to swim, 1896, Courtesy Radcliffe College Archives, Schlesinger Library
Margaret Wessell Piersol, age five, learning to swim presumably with her mother, 1896, Courtesy Radcliffe College Archives, Schlesinger Library.

The swimsuits, though heavy and awkward when wet, permitted women to frolic in the surf. But if the tide came in quickly or current was strong, the full skirt often tangled around a woman’s legs, immobilizing her in the water.

Even if a woman knew how to swim, the weighted fabric often dragged her down. In summer, newspaper headlines recounted numerous deaths–mostly women–from drowning at beaches and lakes. Often women drowned while trying to save a child.

The deaths of nearly 1000 women in the General Slocum incident called attention to drowning as a public safety issue. Confronted with this threat, municipalities initiated “Learn to Swim” campaigns targeting women. Postcards, posters, and newspaper articles encouraged and warned women to learn to swim as a life-saving measure for themselves and–more importantly–for the nation’s children.

Postcard promoting swimming for girls and women, circa 1905. Personal collection.
Postcard promoting swimming for girls and women, circa 1905. Personal collection.

As cities began offering swimming instruction to women, individuals advocating for swimsuit reform–like Lucille Eaton Hill, Edwyn Sandys and Annette Kellerman–began finding audiences receptive.

Campaigns about public safety worked together with advertisements glamorizing swimming for women. They began to dismantle the stereotype that swimming was a masculine sport unsuitable for women.

Public safety advertisements successfully persuaded the general public that men and women could (and should) swim together on beaches because men could both safeguard women and teach them basic elements of swimming.

Such interaction of the sexes in a sport designated as masculine, like swimming, contradicted custom. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries middle-class propriety carefully delineated appropriate interactions between the sexes in most social settings–especially recreational sports. As historian Jeff Wiltse has shown, swimming pools were often segregated by gender and race, but open water swimming differed. The danger of drowning in the surf made mixed-gender swimming socially acceptable in the open water, despite the fact that swimming exposed more of the body than other sports.

Mixed-gender swim group in New York, August, 1906. By G. C. Hovey, Mid Manhattan Picture Collection, Library of Congress.

The early 20th-century “Learn to Swim” campaign succeeded. Mixed-gender amateur swim groups formed in most major US cities. Soon women began competing against men in open water marathons in the US and overseas. Women’s success contradicted cultural beliefs about women’s physical frailty.

But the early “Learn to Swim” campaigns that targeted women may have inadvertently contributed to another cultural stereotype–the belief that swimming constitutes a “white” activity.

Today, drowning captures media attention again. Now, the victims are predominantly nonwhites, not women. In 2008, the New York Times reported that nearly 6 out of 10 African-American and Hispanic children don’t know how to swim. In 2016, the CDC reported that African American children, aged 5 to 19, drown at rates 5.5 times higher than those of whites. Men now have higher drowning rates than women, perhaps due to cultural stereotypes of masculinity. Research links men’s more frequent drowning to an overestimation of skill and intoxication while swimming.

Reporting on the disproportionate drowning rates of blacks, the BBC asked: “Why don’t black Americans swim?” The question reinforces contemporary racial stereotypes about sports. Just as women’s higher rate of drowning in the early 20th century hinged on gendered beliefs, not biology, nonwhites drown at a higher rate today because of complicated social factors. These include lack of access to instruction, segregation that occurred at swimming pools post-WWII, racial stereotypes, and social expectation. As African American athletes gained media coverage for excelling in basketball and track in the mid-20th century, swimming grew less important in black recreational culture. However, we must remember, as Kevin Dawson’s research illustrates, people of African descent have historically displayed swimming skills superior to those whites.

Our cultural beliefs not only limit potential, defining what activities one should and should not pursue, they may be killing us. Examining the history of open water swimming, swimsuits, and advertising provides one way to reexamine our cultural myths and to debunk stereotypes we hold about gender and race.


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?