» Not So Fun in the Sun: A History of Women’s Swimsuits

Not So Fun in the Sun: A History of Women’s Swimsuits

This blog post appeared on the Dashing Duchesses September 17, 2012

As summer winds to a close, I always breathe a sigh of relief at being excused from public viewing. It isn’t that I don’t love the beach – it is my chosen vacation spot, and I count a beautiful beach on St. John as my favorite place in the entire world. But why can’t I swim in shorts and a T-shirt, as I suspect would be not only more comfortable, but also more functional? Why must what I wear while swimming be dictated by fashion standards that reward youth and beauty over skill and experience?

Because let’s face it… if given the choice, I would always rather be able to swim to shore than look cute while drowning.

Whether you are of the modest variety of sea bather or a more daring sort of sun worshiper, a glimpse at what defined “swimwear” in bygone days is an interesting topic of study. I developed an interest in historical women’s swimwear when I was researching my current work-in-progress, a Victorian-era romance set in the British seaside resort of Brighton. I found the topic and the visual examples I uncovered both fascinating and cringe-worthy.

  Some people are of the mistaken opinion that prior to the twentieth century, women didn’t swim. In truth, female swimming was popular during the height of Greek and Roman influence. Artwork surviving from this time suggests that women of this era did swim, and sometimes in the nude. Some artwork also displays women wearing bathing costumes, including 2-piece ensembles that could be argued to resemble some bathing suits of today.

  There is little in the research record to describe the options available to women in the intervening years between the fall of the Roman Empire and emergence of true women’s swimwear in the early twentieth century, and society did not embrace the idea of women swimming in either Britain or America until the beginning of the 20th century. While the rising popularity of the British seaside holiday is well-documented even in the 1700’s (with Bath and Brighton quickly rising in prominence as the destination to visit), the Victorian notion of an idyllic seaside holiday required gender-separated beaches. In addition, at most British sea resorts, bathing machines on wheels were constructed so the modest woman could splash about in privacy and not risk being seen in a state of dishabille.

  Of course, women in this time period weren’t really “swimming.” They were partaking of a sea bath under controlled circumstances, namely being wheeled out to the breakers in bathing machines and then being tossed into the water for a quick dip before being hauled back to safety by an attendant. In this time period, women’s swimming costumes were designed with one purpose in mind: to disguise the contours of the body, presumably to prevent the men onshore from going berserk with carnal desire. Women of this era didn’t really swim, and was it any wonder? They were in danger of being dragged under by twenty yards of sodden wool the moment they set foot in the water. And then, of course, there was the imagined danger of being accosted by the poor, lustful fellows if they showed up on shore in anything less than a corset and crinoline.

Swimwear during this time usually consisted of robes or large, shapeless dresses with the hem sometimes weighted down to prevent the garment from floating up immodestly. Woolen fabrics and flannel were preferred because they were felt to be warmer to the body, and therefore more suited to a woman’s delicate constitution (apparently they were unconcerned with the actual weight of the thing while wet, as long as it didn’t give a chill). Later in the 19th century some women adopted a two-piece ensemble of top and pantaloons, but it still offered the advantage of disguising a women’s shape, and limbs were kept very properly covered.

   It may have continued in this very unpromising vein if not for a daring woman named Annette Kellerman. This Australian-born swimmer shocked the prurient world when in 1907 she showed up at a swimming demonstration showing her arms and her legs in a custom-made one piece bathing ensemble. Oh the horror! Presumably Miss Kellerman understood that the key to effective acrobatic swimming was some freedom of movement. She was arrested for her audacity, but she had effectively challenged the notion that women could not bare their limbs while swimming, and the notion of the modern female swimsuit was born.

    At the turn of the 20th century, swimsuits still resembled more actual clothing than specialized swimwear. But fashion began to play a more important role in women’s choices, and being seen, rather than hiding, became the object of the game.

While the first two piece, called a “bikini”, was introduced in 1946, alas, Society was not yet ready to bare the navel. The bikini had to wait until the free, fun-loving 60’s to make its next regular appearance on the bodies of brave young women everywhere. And then, finally, the men could legitimately go berserk with carnal desire.

I believed I mentioned that functionality was my main concern? Er… yes. My suit of choice is a skirted tankini, mainly because I can excuse myself to use the water closet without a ladies’ maid in tow. So, gentle readers, I ask you: if you COULD cover a bit more of yourself, would you choose to do it? Or is there truly no such thing as peer-worthy swimwear?