Mar 22, 2017 | by Ellen Dial
Get Your Vintage Swim On!
Ah yes, it’s getting to be that time of year again – snow and ice storms aside, spring is springing up all around. Today is a glorious day in Indiana, sunny and mild. The sky is that brilliant blue you only see in the spring, when everything is fresh and new. After the gloom of winter, the trees popping out and annuals popping up is a welcomed surprise…
How perfectly lovely it is!
Let’s plan a week at the beach! At the lake house! Around the pool! Sounds super fun – let’s get outside and get the “stink blown off” (thank you Grandma!).
The downside? Swim wear. The dreaded bathing suit. Ugh!
We’ve all been there – the ugly lighting and standing right on top of the mirrors, showing every bump, dimple and roll. Acres of dry wintery skin. It’s horrifying for a great many of us. “Puffed white death”, as my fantastic Uncle Joe would say.
Depressingly depressing. The worst.
With warm weather comes fewer layers and more revealing clothes. Bane of our existence. Yes, we are now encouraged to embrace and love bodies regardless, and that’s all fine and good. But still.
Leaving little to nothing to the imagination.
One has to wonder, was it always this way? Have women (and men, for that matter) always dreaded donning this hated garment? What did great aunt Carrie wear to sea bathe? Or Queen Victoria? Did they dread it too?
Put on your swim cap and beach slippers. Grab a pool noodle – we’re going to take a paddle around the wacky world of vintage beach wear!
Vintage Swim | Woolies and the Machine
It wasn’t until the early mid-1800’s that sea bathing became a thing. Before, oh sure, people got in the water. Women wore loose fitting muslin dresses to splash around (and matching gloves!), men wore what they wore or went nude. They had separate bathing beaches, of course.
Queen Victoria was a huge fan of sea bathing. She was a proponent of physical exercise, period. Riding, walking, archery, etc. But she loved the sea, and getting in it. And if herself is doing it, we must all do it, and with vigor!
So what did women wear?
A wool flannel ensemble – which consisted of Turkish pants to the ankle, a long sleeved, mid thigh length dress, a cunning little cap, stockings, shoes and their corset, natch. One must not forget THAT!
It all sounds rather itchy, heavy and smelly, doesn’t it? How did they not drown? Wool flannel is heavy to begin with – get it wet?? Add an extra 20 pounds to the swimmer, not to mention schlepping this wet mess around on the beach!
How did they do it? They didn’t.
Behold the bathing machine! Or, the little house in the water.
Not to be confused with this type of little house in the water. But a house on wheels, in the water.
A properly dressed Victorian lady would enter these contraptions from the beach and be wheeled out to the bathing area. Sounds charming? Wrong. They were typically rather dimly lit, small, chilly and smelled of wet wool. She would change out of her proper clothing and into the bathing costume. Once this was accomplished, she would venture out the backside of the machine and take a hold of the attached rope OR have it tied around her waist and bob around. If you could swim (many could not) you might paddle around a bit, to the extent 20 pounds of wet wool and your corset would allow.
Sounds all a little bit nerve wracking, to tell the truth.
After she’d had enough, our lady would get back into the machine, change and be dragged back up to the beach. Emerging properly dressed, damp and if you got your elaborate coiffure wet? Wearing a mess of matted locks.
For the uber-modest lady, some bathing machines had hoods or bonnets that could be extended over the exit, NO ONE would see anything. Not that you really could anyway.
Why is this a concern? Even though there were separate bathing areas and care was taken to respect a lady’s modesty, there were public viewing areas – people could watch others bath. You could hang out with your glass of champagne and opera glasses – watching both men and women getting in and out of the sea. I’m sure it was a true rogues gallery.
By the way? Men just wore drawers – leaving little to the imagination.
It was all quite the production, as only Victorian activities could be.
Vintage Swim | Those Naughty Edwardians
Not so naughty, really. At least in the beginning of this fast and loose era. The bathing machine faded into the sunset. Women began to walk the beach a bit more in their bathing costumes.
What did they wear? Ensembles were still modest and cumbersome. Continue to be wooly but getting much smarter looking. Large nautical collars. Embroidered and embossed. Color and patterns started to be a thing, not just the black of decades past. The Turkish trousers faded out and were replaced with cleverly clocked stockings. Beach slippers were turned into a fashion statement – lacing up the lower leg and embellished. The dress was more like a tunic (though nipped in at the waist with a colorful sash) and ended just below the knee. Rather daring, to be sure.
Most still wore their corsets.
Perhaps not quite as heavy, though I’m certain still carried the stink of wet dog.
They also started co-ed bathing! What!?
The biggest shock came around 1910 – bathing costumes no longer concealed a lady’s form. They were one or two piece get ups that clung to your curves. Think bike shorts (to the knee) and a rather high necked, capped sleeve tank top. Women began to swim for real – not just slop around and hang on ropes. Swim teams and clubs began popping up, women only, and they competed!
Oh, and they quit wearing their corsets to swim. Scandalous!
Annette Kellermann an Australian synchronized swimmer, vaudeville star and well, general badass, started the shift in 1907, when arrested for indecent exposure wearing this type of bathing costume – her wonderful quote sums it all up, “ I want to swim. I can’t swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothesline!”
In true Edwardian fashion, ladies started strolling the beach in these revealing ensembles, though they donned beautiful bathing coats to cover things up. The beach cover is born!
As a side note – men had been wearing one piece bathing suits for years, as revealing as the ladies new style. Go figure.
Vintage Swim | The Feisty Flappers and Beyond
Of course, once women won the vote and started in with more modern ideals, we started pushing the envelope.
Bathing suits became even more scandalous. The length started creeping up the leg, to mid-thigh and above. The necklines dropped to highlight a lady’s décolletage . The arm holes got larger, revealing more arm and side bosom areas. Female bathers were arrested and carted off to jail if their gitty up was deemed too revealing, there were standards, don’t you know. Many wore rolled stockings and darling little shoes (or street shoes, which seems weird now). Beach covers (shorter versions of the Edwardian bathing robe) and large parasols rounded out the super cute look. Very feminine. Pretty revealing and oh so wonderfully scandalous, befitting the times.
Women swam, competed and showed off their aquatic prowess in these less burdensome suits. Just like men had for a very long time.
You go girls!
One very cool trend in the 1930’s were “beach pajamas”. Gorgeous silk or thin cotton very wide legged, high waisted trousers paired with a form hugging halter top. So pretty! So elegant! They gave women a fashionable option to hanging around the beach in a swim suit. So in step with the cool sensuality of the times. Hollywood embraced the beach pajama and it became the thing to wear around newly minted resorts.
Women in pants! Oh my!
As society became more accepting, swimsuits followed. New stretch fabrics came on the scene, check out my fabulous friend Becky’s recent post. The itchy wool suit became a thing of the past.
Oh, some suits, especially in the 1950’s were basically foundation garments – as some are to this day. They give women the ability to get out and get in the water. Be competitive in swimming and diving events. Show their figure and feel the freedom of the sun, water and sand.
To our darling readers: Of the past bathing costumes, which would you have preferred? What are your thoughts on modern suits?
The writer would like to thank: vintagefashionguild.com, precede.com, mentalfloss.com, victoriana.com, Wikipedia.com
And those who post their images freely on the internet.