Swimsuit history

For over a hundred years, to find relief from the oppressive humidity that blankets the East coast each summer, thousands of Americans make a pilgrimage to beaches and pools each weekend.

Dorothea and Maryal Knox in the surf at Rye, NY, ca.1900. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University.

Today, you can simply slip into your swimsuit of choice, slather on the SFP and enjoy the waves. If you were a woman living a hundred years ago, it wouldn’t have been quite that simple.

First, bathing suits weren’t widely manufactured like they are today. Most women typically sewed their own swimsuits. Popular magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar reported on the latest swimwear fashions and published fashionable patterns.

Page from Newcomb Endicott & Co. spring catalog, circa 1902. Courtesy of Peggy. Check out her wonderfully restored images of vintage knitting and sewing patterns: http://www.ivarose.com/

  Bathing suits at the time resembled all-encompassing body suits more than bikinis. At the turn of the century, seven to ten yards were required to make one woman’s bathing suit, depending on the type of fabric chosen and the style. Wool and flannel were recommended as the best choices as they were thought to insulate the body against cold.

The photo of the Knox sisters shows a highly popular swimsuit style which included dark wool tights,  pantaloons, swimming shoes or boots, a sailor-style blouse with balloon sleeves, sash, and full over-skirt. Since the suits were made from such heavy, water-absorbing fabrics, the long voluminous skirts often became tangled around women’s legs in the water. Each week, newspaper headlines described a series of deaths from drowning.

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? That’s precisely what the few women who learned to dive 100 years ago did.

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

As the stereocard of the unidentified woman diving off the pier illustrates, women’s bathing suits heightened the challenges of swimming and diving dramatically.

Because pools were segregated by gender, often with men and women having access on separate days, many women learned to swim on beaches and open water bath houses. At open water bath houses and beaches, ironically, men and women often swam together, primarily for reasons of safety. Women’s long, dark, heavy costumes permitted frolicking in the surf, but they made swimming–for those who knew how–very difficult. Thus men and women were encouraged to swim together on public beaches as men could safeguard women and in some cases, teach them basic elements of swimming.

As reformers advocated the health benefits of moderate exercise for women in the early 1900s, some began to ask for swimsuit reform. In 1903 Sir Edwyn Sandys studied female swimmers, noting their inability to move freely in the water. In order to understand how a bathing costume affected women’s range of movement, he put on a woman’s bathing suit and jumped into the water. He struggled and sank almost immediately.

He recounted his harrowing experience in the “Swimming” segment of Lucille Eaton Hill’s Athletic and Out-door Sports for Women: “Not until then did I rightly understand what a serious matter a few feet of superfluous cloth might become in the water.” After describing his inability to move, he confessed, “after that experience I no longer wondered why so few women swim really well, but rather that they were able to swim at all.”

The experience led Sandys to advocate for swimsuit reform and mandatory swim classes for women. Instead of layered dresses with ballooning skirts, tight waists and petticoats, he proposed that women wear a one-piece, loose-fitting garment in the water.

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

They resemble a square sack with arm and leg holes. Sixteen-year-old Jane Magrann boldly poses in one of these modern swimsuits circa 1916. Magrann likely swam with her family who had a beach house at Atlantic City.

She also swam with her friends, who later became her sisters-in-law, at small beaches along the Delaware River and watering holes such as Lakeland and Parkland, Pennsylvania. Then, like today, swimming, dancing, and other sports provided not only recreation but a chance to socialize with peers away from the surveillance of parents. Occurring completely away from the home, swimming offered teenagers the chance to explore independence, test boundaries, and begin to forge their own culture.

As swimsuits for women shrank in size and bulk, the products sold to accompany swimwear multiplied. Fashionable swimming boots, socks, stockings, caps, and detachable skirts were manufactured and sold together. Even though the bathing suit reached the knees, women were expected to attach a full skirt to cover themselves while not in the water. In fact, public decency laws forbade women and men from lounging on the beach in only swimsuits.

To contemporary viewers, Magrann’s swimsuit seems modest. Some sundresses are more revealing today. At the time, however, wearing a swimsuit that exposed arms fully and revealed knees (out of the water) would have been judged as shockingly risque. She could easily have been arrested just for posing in it while her photograph was taken. Indeed, hundreds of men and women were arrested every year for wearing more.

An Australian woman inspired and led the first major revolution in women’s swimwear in America. Annette Kellerman earned national notoriety as a swimming champion in her native Australia. She captured the attention of major newspapers worldwide when she attempted to swim the English Channel in 1904 and 1905.

At the time, swimming marathons, particularly the English Channel swim, were considered a grueling test of physical and mental endurance. Most believed that only the most elite male athletes could withstand the biting water, swift tides, forceful currents, and unpredictable squalls that characterize the straight. The New York Times remarked in 1922, “When a woman swims the English Channel it will have to be acknowledged that there is no physical feat in which she may not compete with man. It is the supreme test.” Daily reporting on distance swimming in the 1920s had an enormous impact on the evolution of swimwear as one might imagine. It also shaped beauty standards and both challenged and reinforced gender roles in America. But that story will surface later.

“Miss Annette Kellerman.”Publicity photo, 1919. (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

No one expected Kellerman to succeed in her swim from England to France. And she didn’t. But her ability to endure the bitterly cold water for nearly nine hours, her bold attitude and even bolder swimsuit, created a media sensation. That attempt led to invitations to New York and Boston where she joined the vaudeville circuit and entertained audiences with an instructional swimming act. A featured performer in theaters owned by mogul B. F. Keith, she became a celebrity and evolved into a silent motion picture star. Dubbed the “Millionaire Dollar Mermaid,” Kellerman wowed audiences for over two decades. Her popularity helped change the history of women’s swimwear forever.

When she swam races, Kellerman wore a dark union suit which bared her thighs—a standard swimsuit in Australia. Audiences in America and England weren’t quite ready to see so much female skin in public, however.

Before she beginning her swimming performance she was instructed to cover her legs. Instead of layering full tights or adding a skirt, she ingeniously sewed the legs of black tights onto the leg openings of her union suit. The streamlined bathing suit became known simply as the “Kellerman.” The seam joining the union suit to the tights is visible at Kellerman’s mid-thigh.

Many early vaudeville performances held a hint of burlesque and appealed to primarily a male audience. Kellerman’s act, however, appealed to both men and women—for divergent reasons.

Watching Kellerman–tightly sheathed in silk–demonstrate a dive could titillate male viewers (especially as her manager placed mirrors around the tank so viewers could behold her from every angle). At the same time, her confidence and the simplicity of her instruction inspired middle-class women who wanted to learn to swim and perhaps hoped to emulate her healthy appearance. Yet Kellerman’s skin-tight black silk body suit defied convention and caused an uproar among conservatives who were believed women’s shape needed to be concealed not emphasized–especially in public.

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

As late as 1919 the American periodical Life explained, “the one-piece suits and bare legs are all right in the water for either sex, but they are not suitable in the present state of American sentiment for either sex, for intensive sojournings and meandering in public ashore.”

But the respect Kellerman had achieved as a champion swimmer lent legitimacy to her arguments for the suit: it provided women with enhanced mobility in the water and its lighter weight decreased the risk of drowning caused by traditional skirted woolen suits. Few could argue these pragmatic truths. As her appeal in the theater grew, her demonstrations of swimming strokes and dives were lauded, by most, as wholesome. And the suit, which became known as “the Kellerman,” was soon in demand by female consumers who were eager to ditch the cumbersome, heavy bathing dresses they’d customarily worn.

The sleek Kellerman suit, made of thin black fabric (sometimes silk, sometimes tightly knit wool) hugged a woman’s form accentuating her anatomy. To avoid censure, Kellerman promoted the suit under the guise of health. At a time when some still feared that strenuous exercise would harm the female reproductive system, Kellerman shrewdly explained that swimming–a fluid and moderate exercise–would enhance women’s natural beauty.

Ad for Kellerman’s health and beauty book, 1917.

By emphasizing swimming as a means of attaining physical beauty and reinforcing femininity, she was able to garner more acceptance for women’s participation in the sport and gain widespread acceptance of her streamlined swimwear. Advertisers were quick follow her footsteps. Soon women could purchase the “Kellerman suit” in department stores across America.

The revolutionary new swimsuit increased the numbers of women who learned to swim–and who began to excel as swimmers. Kellerman stands as a pioneering swimmer who revolutionized women’s bathing suits and an early example of an athlete who successfully transitioned into Hollywood celebrity. She also became one of the first athletes to link exercise and health to the beauty industry. She authored two books, one focusing exclusively on attaining physical beauty. Parts were serialized as a weekly column (in the Boston Daily Globe and the Atlanta Constitution) that advised women “how to be beautiful.”

3 Responses to Swimsuit history

  1. Kristen Grannan says:

    Wow! What an amazing history. Drowning deaths and billowing suits – yikes!

  2. admin says:

    Thanks! Seriously, can you imagine how challenging and horrific it must have been? I wince at the thought of sand getting trapped in the tights and the potential itchiness and discomfort of wet wool.

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