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Title: Women's Bathing and Swimming Costume in the United States
Author: Kidwell, Claudia B.
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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_Claudia B. Kidwell_

  INTRODUCTION              3
  BATHING COSTUME          14
  CONCLUSIONS              32




For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing
Office Washington, D.C. 20402--Price 50 cents (paper cover)

[Illustration: Figure 1.--BATHING COSTUME, from _The Delineator_, July
1884. (Smithsonian photo 58466.)]

_Claudia B. Kidwell_

_Women's Bathing and Swimming Costume in the United States_

    _The evolution of the modern swim suit from an unflattering,
    restrictive bathing dress into an attractive, functional costume
    is traced from colonial times to the present. This evolution in
    style reflects not only the increasing involvement of women in
    aquatic activities but also the changing motivations for
    feminine participation. The nature of the style changes in
    aquatic dress were influenced by the fashions of the period,
    while functional improvements were limited by prevailing
    standards of modesty. This mutation of the bathing dress to the
    swim suit demonstrates the changing attitudes and status of
    women in the United States, from the traditional image of the
    subordinate "weaker sex" to an equal and active member of the

    THE AUTHOR: _Claudia B. Kidwell is assistant curator of American
    costume, department of civil history, in the Smithsonian
    Institution's Museum of History and Technology._


Women's bathing dress holds a unique place in the history of American
costume. This specialized garb predates the age of sports costume which
arrived during the last half of the 19th century. Although bathing dress
shares this distinction with riding costume, the aquatic garb was merely
utilitarian in the late 18th century while riding costume had a
fashionable role. From its modest status, bathing gowns and later
bathing dresses became more important until their successor, the
swimming suit, achieved a permanent place among the outfits worn by 20th
century women. The social significance of this accomplishment was best
expressed by Foster Rhea Dulles, author of _America Learns to Play_, in
1940, when he wrote:

    The modern bathing-suit ... symbolized the new status of women
    even more than the short skirts and bobbed hair of the jazz age
    or the athleticism of the devotees of tennis and golf. It was
    the final proof of their successful assertion of the right to
    enjoy whatever recreation they chose, costumed according to the
    demands of the sport rather than the tabus of an outworn
    prudery, and to enjoy it in free and natural association with

  [1] FOSTER RHEA DULLES, _America Learns to Play, 1607-1940_ (New York:
      D. Appleton-Century Company, 1940), p. 363.

Since the prescribed limitations of women's role in any given period are
determined and affected by many social factors, the evolution of the
bathing gown to the swimming suit may not only be dependent upon the
changes in the American woman's way of life, but also may reflect
certain technological and sociological factors that are not readily
identifiable. The purpose of this paper is to describe the changes in
women's bathing dress and wherever pertinent to present the factors
affecting these styles.[2]

  [2] The author is indebted to Mrs. Anne W. Murray, formerly Curator
      in Charge of American Costume, Smithsonian Institution, for the
      interest she has shown throughout the research and writing of
      this paper. The difficulties of this work would have been
      greatly compounded without the benefit of her experience and

Anyone who attempts to research the topic of swimming and related
subjects will be confronted with a history of varying reactions. Ralph
Thomas, in 1904, described his experiences through the years that he
spent compiling a book on swimming:

    When asked what I was doing, I have felt the greatest reluctance
    to say a work on the literature of swimming. People who were
    writing novels or some other thing of little practical utility
    always looked at me with a smile of pity on my mentioning
    swimming. Though I am bound to say that, when I gave them some
    idea of the work, the pity changed somewhat but then they would
    say "Why don't you give us a new edition of your Handbook of
    Fictitious Names?" As if the knowledge of the real name of an
    author was of any importance in comparison with the discussion
    of a subject that more or less concerns every human being.[3]

  [3] RALPH THOMAS, _Swimming_ (London: Sampson Low, Marsten & Company
      Limited, 1904), p. 15.

Such reactions toward research about swimming probably discouraged many
serious efforts of writing about the subject. Its scant coverage and
even omission in histories of recreation or sports may be explained by
the fact that swimming cannot be categorized as simply physical
exercise, skill, recreation, or competitive sport. In trying to
determine the extent to which women swam in times past it is frustrating
to observe the historians' masculine bias in researching and reporting
social history.

A study of women's bathing dress meets with similar problems, and while
a discussion of bathing dress can evoke considerable interest, its
nature is usually considered more superficial than serious. Descriptions
of, and even brief references to, bathing apparel for women are very
scarce before the third quarter of the 19th century. Before this time
only decorative costume items were considered worthy of description and
bathing costume was not in this category. It is only within
comparatively recent times that costume historians have conceded
sufficient importance to bathing dress to include meaningful
descriptions in their research.

Participation in water activities was widespread in the ancient world
although the earliest origins of this activity are unknown. For example,
in Greece and, later, in Rome, swimming was valued as a pleasurable
exercise and superb physical training for warriors. The more sedentary
citizens turned to the baths which became the gathering point for
professional men, philosophers, and students. Thus bathing and swimming,
combined originally to fulfill the functions of cleansing and exercise
purely for physical well being, developed the secondary functions of
recreation and social intercourse.

With the rise of the Christian church and its spreading anti-pagan
attitudes, many of the sumptuous baths were destroyed. Christian
asceticism also may have contributed to the decline of bathing for
cleansing. In addition there was a secular belief that outdoor bathing
helped to spread the fearful epidemics that periodically swept the
continent. Although there is isolated evidence that swimming was valued
as a physical skill,[4] swimming and bathing all but disappeared during
the Middle Ages.

  [4] JOSEPH STRUTT, _The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England_
      (London: Chatto and Windus, 1876), pp. 151-152.

In 1531, long after the Middle Ages, Sir Thomas Elyot wrote of swimming

    There is an exercise, whyche is right profitable in extreme
    danger of warres, but ... it hathe not ben of longe tyme muche
    used, specially amoge noble men, perchaunce some reders whl
    lyttell esteeme it.[5]

  [5] SIR THOMAS ELYOT, _The Boke Named the Governour_ (London, 1557),
      vol. 1, pp. 54-55.

This early English writer gave no instructions, but expounded on the
value of swimming as a skill that could be useful in time of war.

It herewith becomes necessary to differentiate between bathing and
swimming with their attendant goals, for it was the goals of each
activity which influenced the associated customs and costume designs.
For this discussion we shall define bathing as the act of immersing all
or part of the body in water for cleansing, therapeutic, recreational,
or religious purposes, and swimming as the self-propulsion of the body
through water. When we refer to swimming it is necessary to distinguish
whether it was considered a useful skill, a therapeutic exercise, a
recreation, or a competitive sport. Thus it is important to note that
while bathing for all purposes and swimming as a physical exercise,
recreation, and sport died out during the Middle Ages, the latter
continued to be valued as a skill, particularly for warriors. This
function of swimming survived to form the link between the ancients and
the 17th century.

According to Ralph Thomas, the first book on swimming was written by
Nicolas Winmann, a professor of languages at Ingolstadt in Bavaria, and
printed in 1528. The first book published in England on swimming was
written in Latin by Everard Digby and printed in 1587. As Thomas has
stated, Digby's book

    ... is entitled to a far more important place than the first of
    the world, because, whereas Winmann had never (up to 1866) been
    translated or copied or even quoted by any one, Digby has been
    three times translated; twice into English and once into French
    and through this latter became and probably still is the best
    known treatise on the subject.[6]

  [6] THOMAS, op. cit. (footnote 3), p. 172.

This French version was first published in 1696 with its purported
author being Monsieur Melchisédesh Thévenot. In his introduction
Thévenot indicates that he has made use of Digby's book in his own
treatise and that he knows of Winmann's publication. The English
translation of Thévenot's version became the standard instruction book
for English-speaking peoples. Typically, his reasons in favor of men
swimming were based on its being a useful skill (i.e., to keep from
being drowned in a shipwreck, to escape capture when being pursued by
enemies, and to attack an enemy posted on the opposite side of a

  [7] MELCHISÉDESH THÉVENOT, _The Art of Swimming_ (London: John Lever,
      1789), pp. 4-5.

In the 18th and 19th centuries numerous other publications on swimming
appeared--too numerous to deal with in this paper. Nevertheless, the
refinement of the art of swimming was not related to the number of
instruction books. Few of these books actually offered new insights in
comparison with those that were outright plagiarisms or filled with
misinformation. In the meantime, bathing was reintroduced and as this
activity became more widespread swimming was regarded as more than a
useful skill, but only for men.

There is little evidence of women bathing or swimming prior to the 17th
century; these activities seem to have been exclusively for men.
Nevertheless, Thomas refers to Winmann as writing, in 1538, that

    at Zurich in his day (thus implying that he was an elderly man
    and that the custom had ceased) the young men and maidens bathed
    together around the statue of "Saint Nicolai." Even in those
    days his pupil asks "were not the girls ashamed of being naked?"
    "No, as they wore bathing drawers--sometimes a marriage was
    brought about." If any young man failed to bring up stones from
    the bottom, when he dived, he had to suffer the penalty of
    wearing drawers like the girls.[8]

  [8] THOMAS, op. cit. (footnote 3), p. 161.

Thomas goes on to say that the only evidence he had found of women
swimming in England in early days was in a ballad entitled "The Swimming
Lady" and dating from about 1670. Despite these isolated references it
was not until the 19th century that women were encouraged to swim.

After its decline in the Middle Ages, bathing achieved new popularity as
a medicinal treatment for both men and women. In England this revival
occurred in the 17th century when certain medical men held that bathing
in fresh water had healing properties. The resultant spas, which were
developed at freshwater springs to effect such "cures," expanded rapidly
as the number of their devotees increased. By the mid-18th century,
rival practitioners claimed even greater health-giving properties for
sea water both as a drink and for bathing. An economic benefit resulted
when, tiny, poverty-stricken fishing hamlets became famous through the
patronage of the wealthy in search of health as well as pleasure.

When the early colonists left England in the first half of the 17th
century, the beliefs and practices they had acquired in their original
homes were brought to the new world. Thus, it is important to note that
during this period in Europe, swimming was a skill practiced by few,
primarily soldiers and sailors. It was not until the second half of the
century that bathing for therapeutic purposes was becoming popular in
the old world.

The earliest reference to women's bathing costume has been quoted
previously in Winmann's amazing description of mixed bathing at Zurich.
He referred to women, wearing only drawers, bathing with men as a custom
no longer practiced when he wrote his book in 1538.

One of the earliest illustrations of bathing costume I have located is
part of a painted fan leaf, about 1675, that was reproduced in volume 9
of Maurice Leloir's _Histoire du Costume de l'Antiquité_ in 1914. In one
corner of this painting, which depicts a variety of activities going on
in the Seine and on the river banks at Paris, women are shown immersing
themselves in water within a covered wooden frame. They are wearing
loose, light-colored gowns and long headdresses. An English source of
the late 17th century described a very similar costume.

    The ladye goes into the bath with garments made of yellow
    canvas, which is stiff and made large with great sleeves like a
    parson's gown. The water fills it up so that it's borne off that
    your shape is not seen, it does not cling close as other

  [9] CELIA FIENNES, _Through England on Horseback_, as quoted in IRIS
      BROOKE and JAMES LAVER, _English Costume from the Fourteenth
      through the Nineteenth Century_ (New York: The Macmillan Company,
      1937), p. 252.

In the course of my contacts with other costume historians I have
encountered the belief that women did not wear any bathing costume
before the mid-19th century. Supporting this theory I have seen a
reproduction of a print, about 1812, showing women bathing nude in the
ocean at Margate, England, but the evidence already presented indicates
clearly that costume was worn earlier. Also certain English secondary
sources refer to a nondescript chemise-type of bathing dress that was
worn during the first quarter of the 19th century. Because little study
has been given European bathing costume, it is not possible to
conjecture under what circumstances costume was or was not used. We do
know, however, that when bathing became popular in the new world bathing
gowns were worn by some women in the old.

Cultural Environment

As many European cultural traits were transmitted to the new world via
England, so was the introduction of water activities. Nevertheless it
required a number of years for such cultural refinements as bathing to
take root in the new environment. The early colonists brought with them
a limited knowledge of swimming, but they did not have the leisure to
cultivate this skill. In New England the Puritan religious and social
beliefs were as restrictive as the lack of leisure time. In this harsh
climate, self-indulgence in swimming and bathing did not fulfill the
requirements of being righteous and useful. Thus the growing popularity
of bathing among the wealthy in Europe during the 17th and early 18th
centuries had little initial impact in the new world.

Although swimming as a skill predated the introduction of bathing to the
new world, I will first discuss bathing since the customs and facilities
established for it reveal the development of swimming in America, first
for men and then for women.


One of the earliest sources showing an appreciation of mineral waters
for bathing in the new world is a 1748 reference in George Washington's
diary to the "fam'd Warm Springs."[10] At that time only open ground
surrounded the springs which were located within a dense forest.

  [10] GEORGE WASHINGTON, _The Writings of George Washington_, John C.
       Fitzpatrick, ed. (Washington: United States Congress, 1931), vol.
       1, p. 8.

Another entry for July 31, 1769, records his departure with Mrs.
Washington for these springs (now known as Berkeley Springs, West
Virginia) where they stayed more than a month. They were accompanied by
her daughter, Patsy Custis, who was probably taken in hope of curing a
form of epilepsy with which she was afflicted. In the latter part of the
18th century hundreds of visitors annually flocked to these springs.
Although the accommodations were primitive, we early note that the
avowed therapeutic aims for visiting these waters were very quickly
combined with a growing social life on dry land.

    Rude log huts, board and canvas tents, and even covered wagons,
    served as lodging rooms, while every party brought its own
    substantial provisions of flour, meat and bacon, depending for
    lighter articles of diet on the "Hill folk," or the success of
    their own foragers. A large hollow scooped in the sand,
    surrounded by a screen of pine brush, was the only
    bathing-house; and this was used alternately by ladies and
    gentlemen. The time set apart for the ladies was announced by a
    blast on a long tin horn, at which signal all of the opposite
    sex retired to a prescribed distance, ... Here day and night
    passed in a round of eating and drinking, bathing, fiddling,
    dancing, and reveling. Gaming was carried to a great excess and
    horse-racing was a daily amusement.[11]

  [11] JOHN J. MOORMAN, _The Virginia Springs_ (Richmond: J. W.
       Randolph, 1854), pp. 259-260.

The more permanent bath houses found at the increasing number of springs
in the early 19th century were really only shanties built where the
water bubbled up. Nevertheless, as civilization moved in upon these
resorts, the current taboos and mores were soon imposed. These gave rise
to customs, facilities, and inventions peculiar to the pastime. The more
permanent facilities carefully separated men from women. Frequently the
women's bath was located a considerable distance from the men's and
surrounded by a high fence. Female attendants were at hand to wait upon
the ladies, and private rooms were prepared for their use both before
and after bathing.

In the early 19th century the fame of Berkeley Springs was eclipsed
temporarily by the growing popularity of other springs, such as Saratoga
in the north and White Sulphur Springs in the south. The newest
facilities, however, and the completion of the Baltimore and Ohio
Railroad, restored Berkeley to its former prosperity in the early 1850s.

The bath houses at Berkeley Springs in the 1850s are an example of the
facilities that were considered convenient, extensive, and elegant
during this period. The gentlemen's bath house contained fourteen
dressing rooms and ten large bathing rooms. In addition to the plunge
baths, which were twelve feet long, five feet wide, and four and a half
feet deep, the men had a swimming bath that was sixty feet long, twenty
feet wide, and five feet deep. The ladies' and men's bath houses were
located on opposite sides of the grove. As if this were not reassuring
enough, we are told that the building for the weaker sex was surrounded
by several acres of trees. Thus protected, feminine bathers could choose
either one of the nine private baths or the plunge bath, which was
thirty feet long by sixteen feet wide and four and a half feet deep, as
well as use a shower or artificial warm baths.[12]

  [12] Ibid., p. 264.

The differences between the two bath houses show that women were not as
active in the water as the men. Judging from the kind of facilities that
were provided at Berkeley Springs, the ladies did less "plunging" than
the men and no swimming.

Although accepted in England, bathing in =salt= water did not become
popular in the new world until some time after bathing at springs was

In 1794 a Mr. Bailey announced that he planned to institute "bathing
machines and several species of entertainment" at his resort on Long
Island.[13] "A machine of peculiar construction for bathing in the open
sea" was advertised a few years later by a hotel proprietor at Nahant,
Massachusetts.[14] There is some question as to what the term "bathing
machine" describes. Existing records show that W. Merritt of New York
City received a patent dated February 1, 1814, for a "bathing machine."
Unfortunately neither a description nor a drawing can be found today.
European patents from the first half of the 19th century reveal that a
bathing machine could be a contraption in which an individual bathed in
privacy. This is what the above quotations seem to be describing. In
general usage, however, "bathing machine" could also have been a device
in which an individual removed his clothing to prepare for bathing; this
type will be described later.

  [13] HENRY WANSAY, _An Excursion to the United States_ (Salisbury: J.
       Easton, 1798), p. 211, as quoted in DULLES, _America Learns to
       Play_, p. 152.

  [14] FRED ALLAN WILSON, _Some Annals of Nahant_ (Boston: Old Corner
       Book Store, 1928), p. 77, as quoted in DULLES, _America Learns to
       Play_, p. 152.

By the early 19th century floating baths were established in every city
of any importance including Boston, Salem, Hartford, New York,
Philadelphia, Washington, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah. One bath
located at the foot of Jay Street in New York City was described as

    The building is an octagon of seventy feet in diameter, with a
    plank floor supported by logs so as to sink the center bath four
    feet below the surface of the water, but in the private baths
    the water may be reduced to three or even two feet so as to be
    perfectly safe for children. It is placed in the current so
    always to be supplied with ocean and pure water and rises and
    falls with the tide.[15]

  [15] _New York Evening Post_ (June 4, 1813).

As was true at the springs, men and women were segregated; but in the
floating baths they were only separated by being in different
compartments rather than in different bath houses.

Although there were a number of these baths there were not enough to
cover all of the inviting river banks and sea shores. There are many
instances of men enjoying the water of undeveloped shores and there is
some evidence of women venturing into the bays and rivers (fig. 2).

[Illustration: Figure 2.--"BATHING PARTY, 1810," painting by William P.

(_Courtesy of Museum of the City of New York._)]

Nevertheless, few women ventured into the open ocean during the early
19th century. They were generally afraid to brave the force of the ocean
waves with only a female companion, since prevailing attitudes regarding
the proper behavior of a lady prevented them from being accompanied by a
man. When a few ignored this dictate, their bold actions gave rise to
"ill-founded stories of want of delicacy on the part of the
females."[16] An unbiased traveler, who gave an account of this mixed
bathing in 1833, stated that parties always went into the water
completely dressed and for that reason he could see no great violation
of modesty. Mixed bathing at the seashore (fig. 3) was gaining
acceptance, however, when it was reported only thirteen years later that
"... ladies and gentlemen bathe in company, as is the fashion all along
the Atlantic Coast...."[17]

  [16] JAMES STUART, _Three Years in North America_ (Edinburgh: Robert
       Cadwell, 1833), vol. 1, p. 441.

  [17] J. W. and N. ORR, _Orr's Book of Swimming_ (New York: Burns and
       Baner, 1846) as quoted in THOMAS, op. cit. (footnote 3), p. 270.

In place of the dressing rooms available in the floating baths, special
facilities were frequently provided. The bathing machine--in this case a
device in which one changed clothes--was used where there was a gentle
slope down to the water. This species of bathing machine was a small
wooden cabin set on very high wheels with steps leading down from a door
in the front. The bather entered and, while he was changing, the machine
was pulled into the sea by a horse. When water was well above the axles
the horse was uncoupled and taken ashore. The bather was then free to
enter the sea by descending the steps pointed away from the shore (fig.
4). Machines of the 18th and early 19th century were frequently equipped
with an awning which shielded the bather from public view as she or he
descended the steps to enter the water. These awnings were left off the
bathing machines during the last half of the 19th century. Such machines
were used to a great extent in Europe during the 18th and 19th
centuries. In the United States, however, they were used only to a
limited extent during the first half of the 19th century. By 1870 they
had practically disappeared--being replaced by the stationary,
sentry-box type of individual structure and the large communal bath

"Sentry-boxes" were used before the 1870s at beaches where the terrain
did not encourage the use of the bathing machines. At Long Branch, New
Jersey, and at one of the beaches at Newport, Rhode Island, lines of
these stationary structures were available to the bather for changing,
one half designated for women and the other half for men. Hours varied
but it was the practice to run up colored flags to signal bathing times
for the ladies and then the gentlemen. A male correspondent wrote from
Newport in 1857:

    If you are social and wish to bathe promiscuously, you put on a
    dress and go in with the ladies, if you want to cultivate the
    "fine and froggy art of swimming," unencumbered by attire, you
    wait until the twelve o'clock red-flag is run up--when the
    ladies retire.[18]

  [18] "Life at Watering-Places--Our Newport Correspondent," _Frank
       Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper_ (August 29, 1857), vol. 4, no.
       91, p. 197.

From its early beginnings, in the late 18th and early 19th century, the
summer excursion to the resorts and spas grew in popularity. In 1848, a
writer of a Philadelphia fashion report explained that

    Very few ladies of fashion are now in town, most of them being
    birds of passage during the last of July and all of August. Most
    Americans seem to have adopted the fashion of visiting
    watering-places through the summer.[19]

  [19] "Chit-Chat upon Philadelphia Fashions for August," _Godey's
       Lady's Book_ (August 1848), vol. 37, p. 119.

As the summer excursion became a social event, the recreational
possibilities of bathing overshadowed its earlier therapeutic function.
Bathing became part of an increasingly elaborate schedule of activities
where each event--bathing, dining, concerts, balls, promenades, carriage
rides--had its appointed time, place, and proper costume.

[Illustration: Figure 3.--"SCENE AT CAPE MAY," _Godey's Lady's Book_,
August 1849. (_Courtesy of The New York Public Library._)]

In addition to stiff ocean breezes, seaside resorts had an extra appeal
that beguiled visitors away from the spas--namely mixed bathing. For
during the bathing hour at the seashore all the stiffness and etiquette
of select society was abandoned to pleasure.

    Again and again I try it. Deliriusm! I forget even Miss ----,
    and dive headforemost into the billows. I rush to meet them. I
    jump on their backs. I ride on their combs, or I let them roll
    over me.... I am in the thickest of the bathers, and amid the
    roar of waves, am driven wild with excitement by the shouts of
    laughter; burst of noisy merriment, and little jolly female
    shrieks of fun. All are wild with excitement, ducking, diving,
    splashing, floating, rollicking.[20]

  [20] "My First Day at Cape May," _Peterson's Magazine_ (August 1856),
       vol. 30, no. 2, p. 91.

Thus bathing was transformed from a medicinal treatment to a pleasurable

Excursionists had to be hardy individuals, firm in their resolve to
complete their trip. Although many railroad lines had been completed
by the 1850s, transportation problems were by no means solved. For
example, a New York tourist who planned to enjoy a summer at Lake George
had to travel by boat from New York City to Albany and Troy, then by
railroad to Morean Corner, and, finally, by stage to the lake. After
listing the difficulties endured by excursionists, a particularly
embittered correspondent commented in 1856, "... we envy these happy
people in nothing but the power to be idle."[21]

  [21] _Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper_ (July 26, 1856), vol. 2,
       no. 33, p. 102.

[Illustration: Figure 4.--"THE BATHE AT NEWPORT," by Winslow Homer,
_Harper's Weekly Newspaper_, September 1858. (Smithsonian photo 59665.)]

By the 1870s, travel facilities were rapidly being improved and many new
summer resorts were established which appealed to a larger segment of
the population.

    Comparatively few can stay long at one time at the springs or
    seaside resorts, and hence the peculiar value of arrangements
    like those for enabling multitudes to take frequent short
    pleasant excursions down the New York Bay and along the Atlantic
    coast, as well as up the Hudson, and through Long Island

  [22] "Summer Recreation," _Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper_ (June
       18, 1870), vol. 30, no. 768, p. 210.

Beaches that catered to a large cross-section of the population provided
a wide variety of informal activities that replaced the established
functions found at the more select bathing resorts. For example, the
illustration of Coney Island in 1878 (fig. 5) shows a puppet show; pony
rides for children; a hurdy gurdy; vendors of walking sticks,
sunglasses, and food; and guide ropes in the water for timid bathers.

_Harper's Weekly Newspaper_, August 1878.

(Smithsonian photo 59666.)]

In the 1890s foreign visitors were impressed by American concern with
finding opportunities to play; early in the century they had remarked on
the apparent lack of interest in amusements. The term, "summer resorts,"
no longer referred to a relatively small number of fashionable watering
places. The _New York Tribune_ was running eight columns of summer hotel
advertisements aimed directly at the middle class. The popular _Summer
Tourist and Excursion Guide_ listed moderate-priced hotels and railroad
excursions; it was a far departure from the fashionable tour of the

Thus, as economic and technological factors changed, bathing was
transformed from a medicinal treatment for the leisure class to a
recreation enjoyed by a large portion of the population.


As has been stated earlier, swimming was being practiced by men in
Europe when the early colonists were leaving their old homes.
Nevertheless, the task of establishing new homes left them little time
to practice the "art of swimming" or to teach it to fellow colonists.

Benjamin Franklin is no doubt the most famous early proponent of
swimming in the colonies. In his autobiography written in the form of a
letter to his son in 1771, Franklin revealed his early interest in

    I had from a child been delighted with this exercise, had
    studied and practiced Thévenot's motions and position, and added
    some of my own, aiming at the graceful and easy, as well as the

  [23] JARED SPARKS, _The Works of Benjamin Franklin_ (Boston: Tappan
       and Whittemore, 1844), vol. I, pp. 63-64.

Benjamin Franklin used every opportunity to encourage his friends to
learn to swim,

    as I wish all men were taught to do in their youth; they would,
    on many occurrences, be the safer for having that skill, and on
    many more the happier, as freer from painful apprehensions of
    danger, to say nothing of the enjoyment in so delightful and
    wholesome an exercise.[24]

  [24] J. FROST, _The Art of Swimming_ (New York: P. W. Gallaudet,
       1818), p. 57.

Not only was Franklin in favor of being able to swim but when requested
he advised friends on methods for how to teach oneself. His
instructions, in his letter of September 28, 1776 to Mr. Oliver Neale,
were published a number of times even as late as the 1830s.

America's first swimming school was established at Boston in 1827 by
Francis Liefer. Two expert swimmers, John Quincy Adams and John James
Audubon, the ornithologist, visited the school and each expressed
delight at having found such an establishment.

Numerous books instructing men how to swim were brought into the United
States in the early 19th century and some were republished here, but the
first original work (i.e., not a plagiarism) by an American was not
published until 1846. In this book the author, James Arlington Bennet,
M.D., LL.D., based his instructions upon his own personal observations
as an experienced swimmer. Dr. Bennet's publication requires special
note not only due to the basic value of the information but because of
the extraordinary title (i.e., _The Art of Swimming Exemplified by
Diagrams from Which Both Sexes May Learn to Swim and Float on the Water;
and Rules for All Kinds of Bathing in the Preservation of Health and
Cure of Disease, with the Management of Diet from Infancy to Old Age,
and a Valuable Remedy Against Sea-sickness_). Thanks to this explicit
title we learn that Dr. Bennet was in favor of women learning to swim.
This energetic aquatic activity had long been considered a masculine
skill and, despite such a significant publication, this attitude
continued until much later in the century.

We have already noted in a previous discussion that the Berkeley Springs
bath houses of the 1850s provided a swimming bath for men but no similar
facilities for women. Also at certain seaside resorts of the same
period, a special time was set for men to practice the art of swimming
without clothing, but women had no similar opportunity. When the ladies
entered the water they were clothed from head to toe because men were
also present. The description of women's bathing costume, which will
appear in a later section, clearly shows that women could do little more
than try to maintain their footing. Undoubtedly some "brazen" women did
find the opportunity to swim, but the general attitude was that women
should only immerse themselves in water.

By the 1860s there was a widespread health movement which gave
additional momentum to the belief that physical exercise was good for
one's well-being. As a result, women were being encouraged to emerge
from their state of physical inactivity imposed by social custom.
Swimming had already gained recognition as a healthful exercise for men,
but with this fresh approach it was even being suggested that women
should swim. A column that appeared in 1866, entitled "Physical Exercise
for Females," asserted that

    Bathing, as it is practiced at our coast resorts, is, no doubt,
    a delightful recreation; but if to it swimming could be added,
    the delight would be increased, and the possible use and
    advantage much extended.[25]

  [25] _Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper_ (August 25, 1866), vol.
       22, no. 569, p. 355.

In answer to the possible objection that the facilities for teaching
were not always available, the writer maintained that in addition to the
seashore there were rivers, lakes, and ponds as well as the swimming
baths found in most large cities. He further asserted that if the demand
were great enough, certain days could be appropriated exclusively to
women as was done in some of the London baths.

The type of baths referred to in this case were not built simply to
supply a health-giving treatment or for recreation as described earlier.
As part of the health movement mentioned above, there was a growing
concern in regards to personal cleansing; it was realized that merely
splashing water on the face in the morning was not sufficient for good
personal hygiene. While facilities for washing the whole body were being
installed in wealthy homes, there was also a growing concern for the
masses of people who could not afford such extravagance. Thus
philanthropic individuals encouraged the building of public swimming
baths in densely populated, low income areas. It was hoped that,
although the patrons would be covered by bathing costume and would be
seeking refreshment and recreation, this unaccustomed contact with water
would improve their personal hygiene.

In 1870 a reporter for _Leslie's_, who was describing two elegant large
bathhouses (the type described above) in New York City, stated that
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were set apart for ladies and Tuesdays,
Thursdays, and Saturdays for gentlemen. These baths became quite popular
in the large cities, particularly among people who could not afford the
time or money to make trips even to the near seaside resorts. By the
1880s they were so popular that bathing time was scheduled to allow many
sets of bathers to enjoy the water. Thus a number of women who had
probably never been completely covered with water before had the
opportunity to learn to swim.

While women were being encouraged to practice swimming as a healthful
exercise, this activity was being recognized as a recreation and sport
for men. The increasing affluence during the last three decades of the
19th century, which made possible the widespread popularity of summer
excursions, encouraged swimming as an individual pastime as well as a
growing spectator sport. This was true not only for swimming but for
nearly every sport we enjoy today. In 1871 a reporter wrote:

    It is not underrating the interest attached to yachting or
    rowing matches, to say that swimming clubs and swimming matches
    can be made to create wider and more useful emulation among "the
    Million" who can never participate in or benefit by those
    notable trials of skill and muscle.[26]

  [26] Ibid. (July 29, 1871), vol. 32, no. 826, p. 322.

By the 1890s this growing interest in spectator and individual sports
evidenced several interesting results. Separate sporting pages were
established in the formats of many newspapers. In addition to being a
summer pastime, "the art of swimming" became an intercollegiate and
Olympic sport, and was included on the roster of events for the 1896
revival of the Olympic Games held in Athens. Innovations in facilities
and techniques helped to alter the character of swimming. The most
notable of these were the development of the indoor pool and the
introductions of the crawl stroke into the United States.

It was in this time period that swimming for women was becoming socially
acceptable. In 1888, Goucher College, a prominent girls' school, built
its own indoor pool and the following year swimming was listed in its
catalog for the first time. Writers, in turn, no longer felt it
necessary to convince readers that women should be more active in the
water, but concentrated instead on what a woman should know when she
swims. This changing attitude gained world-wide recognition in 1912 at
Stockholm when the 100-meter swimming event for women was included in
the schedule.

The period of prosperity following World War I brought a marked increase
in the appreciation of recreation, resulting in an increase of swimming
pools and available beaches. Indoor pools, which made swimming a
year-round activity, were becoming even more numerous than beaches.
Swimming was now established as a sport and a recreation for both men
and women. According to a 1924 magazine article in the _Delineator_,
seldom was a swimming meet held anywhere in the country without events
for women. At Palm Beach, however, one of the few remaining citadels of
"high society," an axiom of fashion dictated that a lady or gentleman
not go into the water before 11:45 in the morning; should one do so, one
ran the risk of being taken for a maid or valet. The masses, however,
swam for pleasure without regard to the inhibitions of high fashion.

This period was also marked by the advent of swimming personalities of
both sexes. Johnny Weissmuller became a popular hero for his
accomplishments in competitive swimming from 1921 to 1929. Even before
the war Annette Kellerman, star of vaudeville and movies, had become
famous for her fancy diving as well as her celebrated figure, which she
daringly exhibited in a form-fitting, one-piece suit. In addition to
writing an autobiography, she authored articles and a swimming
instruction book for women. As an example of what exercise, including
swimming, could do for women, Annette Kellerman also lent her name to a
course of physical culture for less "well-developed" ladies. Another
product of this new age of recreation was Gertrude Ederle, who learned
to swim at the Woman's Swimming Association of New York. She rose to
sudden fame in 1926 as the first woman to swim the English Channel.

As previously stated, swimming was practiced through the Middle Ages as
a useful skill for men. Gradually this activity became regarded as also
a healthful exercise and then as a recreation. Finally by the late 19th
century swimming also had achieved the status of a competitive
sport--but for men only. It was not until the 1920s that social
attitudes permitted women the same full use of the water as men.

The restrictive attitudes defining women's proper behavior in the water
prior to the 1920s were one element of the mores defining women's
participation in society. Thus as more liberal attitudes gained
acceptance and modified the original concept of the "weaker sex," women
gradually achieved social acceptance of their full participation in
aquatic activities.

Bathing Costume

Bathing became popular as a medicinal treatment for both men and women
of the new world in the last half of the 18th century. It was the only
aquatic activity, however, that was considered proper for women until
over a hundred years later.

Like so many other customs, changes in bathing costume styles were
initially introduced by way of England. They were adapted or rejected
according to the special conditions of this continent. To give a clearer
picture of the costume worn in the colonies and in the United States,
descriptions of the English dress will be included where pertinent. I
have not, however, found any evidence showing that bathing nude was a
practice for women in this country.


It is disappointing but not surprising to discover the lack of
descriptions pertaining to early bathing costume. This simple gown was
utilitarian, not decorative. Thus it deserved little attention in the
eyes of the contemporary bather.

No doubt it is due to the importance of the original owner that the
following example has survived. In the collection of family memorabilia
at Mount Vernon, there is a chemise-type bathing gown that is said to
have been worn by Martha Washington (fig. 6). According to a note
attached to the gown signed by Eliza Parke Custis, and addressed to
"Rosebud," a pet name for her daughter, Martha Washington probably wore
this bathing gown at Berkeley Springs as she accompanied her daughter,
Patsy, in her bath.

This blue and white checked linen gown has several construction details
similar to the chemise, a woman's undergarment, of the period. The
sleeves were gathered near the shoulder and were set in with a gusset at
the armpit. The skirt of the gown was made wider at the bottom by the
usual method of adding four long triangular pieces--one to each side of
both the front and back. The sleeves, however, are not as full as those
one would expect to find on a chemise of the period. Also a chemise
would probably have had a much wider neckline gathered by a draw-string
threaded through a band at the neck edge. Instead, this bathing gown has
a moderately low neckline made wider by a slit down the front which is
closed by two linen tapes sewn to either edge of the front. Although
less fabric was used for the bathing gown than was normally required to
make a chemise, it was probably not because of functional considerations
as one might like to think, but because of the scarcity of fabric. Close
examination reveals that the triangular sections of fabric used to add
fullness to the skirt consist of several pieces. In fact the two
sections used in the back are made from a different fabric, although it
is still a blue and white checked linen. Frugal use of scraps in linings
and hidden sections of decorative costume was common practice in the
18th century. The piecing of the bathing gown is further evidence of the
fact that it was a garment that had no ornamental purpose.

[Illustration: Figure 6.--LINEN BATHING GOWN said to have been worn by
Martha Washington. (_Courtesy of The Mount Vernon Ladies'

Of particular interest are the lead disks which are wrapped in linen and
attached near the hem next to the side seams by means of patches. No
doubt these weights were used to keep the gown in place when the bather
entered the water.

The following account of bathing in Dover, England, in 1782 suggests how
the bathing gown might have been used at Berkeley Springs:

    The Ladies in a morning when they intend to bathe, put on a long
    flannel gown under their other clothes, walk down to the beach,
    undress themselves to the flannel, then they walk in as deep as
    they please, and lay hold of the guides' hands, three or four
    together sometimes.

    Then they dip over head twenty times perhaps; then they come
    onto the shore where there are women that attend with towels,
    cloaks, chairs, etc. The flannel is stripp'd off, wip'd dry,
    etc. Women hold cloaks round them. They dress themselves and go

  [27] _Diary of John Crosier_, 1782, as quoted in C. WILLETT and
       PHILLIS CUNNINGTON, _Handbook of English Costume in the
       Eighteenth Century_ (London: Faber and Faber, 1957), p. 404.

The earliest illustration showing costume worn in the United States for
fresh water bathing is dated 1810 (see fig. 2). Unfortunately the
painting reveals only that the bathing gowns were long and dark colored
in comparison with the white dresses of the period.

An 1848 article which described, in detail, the fashionable dress called
for by each activity at summer resorts, concludes with the following
tantalizing paragraph:

    We have no space for an extended description of suitable
    bathing-dresses. They may be procured at any of our town
    establishments for the purpose. Much depends upon individual
    taste in their arrangement, for uncouth as they often of
    necessity are, they can be improved by a little tact.[28]

  [28] Loc. cit. (footnote 19).

This is the only reference to American bathing costume of the second
quarter of the 19th century that the author has found at this time.
Nevertheless, an English source describes what must have been a
transitional style between the chemise-type bathing gown and the more
fitted costume of the 1850s.

The _Workwoman's Guide_, published in London, 1840, included
instructions for making both a bathing gown and a bathing cap. Health
and modesty were the main considerations that influenced the choice of
color and type of material.

    Bathing gowns are made of blue or white flannel, stuff,
    calimanco, or blue linen. As it is especially desirable that the
    water should have free access to the person, and yet that the
    dress should not cling to, or weigh down the bather, stuff or
    calimanco are preferred to most other materials; the dark
    coloured gowns are the best for several reasons, but chiefly
    because they do not show the figure, and make the bather less
    conspicuous than she would be in a white dress.[29]

  [29] A LADY, _The Workwoman's Guide_ (London: Simpkin, Marshall, and
       Co., 1840), p. 61.

The following details reveal that, in general, this 1840 bathing gown
starts as an unshaped garment similar to the gown attributed to Martha
Washington [brackets are mine].

    As the width of the materials, of which a bathing gown is made,
    varies, it is impossible to say of how many breadths it should
    consist. The width at the bottom, when the gown is doubled,
    should be about 15 nails [1 nail = 2¼ in.]: fold it like a
    pinafore, slope 3½ nails for the shoulders, cut or open slits of
    3½ nails long for the armholes, set in plain sleeves 4½ nails
    long, 3½ nails wide, and make a slit in front 5 nails long.[30]

  [30] Loc. cit. (footnote 29).

The instructions for finishing this gown, however, show that the sleeves
were worn close around the wrists and that the fullness of the skirt was
secured at the waist by a belt.

    In making up, delicacy is the great object to be attended to.
    Hem the gown at the bottom, gather it into a band at the top,
    and run in strings; hem the opening and the bottom of the
    sleeves and put in strings. A broad band should be sewed in
    about half a yard from the top, to button round the waist.[31]

  [31] Loc. cit. (footnote 29).

By the addition of the above details this type of bathing gown more
closely approximates the style of the long-skirted blouse of the 1850s
to be described later.

In regard to the bathing cap we are told that,

    These are made of oil-silk, and are worn, when bathing, by
    ladies who have long hair.... It is advisable, however, for
    those who have not long hair, to bathe in plain linen caps, so
    as to admit the water without the sand or grit, and thus the
    bather, unless prohibited on account of health, enjoys all the
    benefit of the shock without injuring the hair.[32]

  [32] Ibid., p. 68.

The "Scene at Cape May" (fig. 3) shows women wearing long-skirted,
long-sleeved, belted gowns as well as head coverings similar to the type
described in _The Workwoman's Guide_.

Thus during the period when bathing became popular as a medicinal
treatment, women wore loose, open gowns perhaps patterned after a common
undergarment, the chemise. Although this chemise-type bathing costume
must have been very comfortable when dry, its fullness was restrictive
when wet. The bather could only immerse herself in water which was all
that was necessary for the treatment. As the recreational possibilities
of bathing began to overshadow its health-giving properties, women's
bathing dresses also became more fitted, following the general
silhouette of women's fashions.


Figure 7.--SEA BATHING AT CONEY ISLAND, from _Frank Leslie's Illustrated
Newspaper_, September 1856.

(Smithsonian photo 58437.)]


During the first half of the 19th century in England and the United
States, a more tolerant attitude toward feminine exercise led women to
abandon the fiction that they were not bipedal while bathing. This
acknowledgment, however, was not fostered solely by the need for a more
functional bathing dress. It was first evidenced by a few daring
European women who wore lace-edged pantaloons trimmed with several rows
of tucking under their daytime dresses. The shorter, untrimmed,
knee-length drawers which quickly replaced the pantaloons, became an
unseen but essential item in the fashionable English lady's toilette of
the 1840s. These drawers, or a plainer version of the longer pantaloons,
were adapted not only to the female riding habit but the bathing dress
as well. An 1828 English source reported that "Many ladies when riding
wear silk drawers similar to what is worn when bathing."[33] With the
increased interest in physical exercise for women, ankle-length, open
pantaloons also were being worn in the 1840s with a long overdress as an
early form of gymnasium suit. This evidence of the early use of drawers
suggests that, like English ladies, women in the United States were
probably wearing a type of drawers beneath their nondescript bathing
gowns during the second quarter of the 19th century. There is some
slight support of this theory in the following stanza of a poem that
appeared in 1845:

    But go to the beach ere the morning be ended
    And look at the bathers--oh what an array
    The ladies in trowsers, the _gemmen_ in _blowses_
    E'en red flannel shirts are the "go" at Cape May.[34]

  [33] As quoted in C. WILLETT and PHILLIS CUNNINGTON, _The History of
       Underclothes_ (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), p. 130.

  [34] "Cape May," _Godey's Lady's Book_ (December 1845), vol. 31, p.

The rather crude but delightful sketch of seabathing at Coney Island in
1856 (fig. 7) shows the ladies wearing very full, ankle-length, trousers
with a sack top extending loosely only a few inches below the waist.
This type of bathing costume, which was primarily a bifurcated garment
instead of a skirted one, became the prevailing fashion as reported in
English women's magazines of the 1860s.

In contrast to the originally European skirtless costume, the
Philadelphia publication, _Peterson's Magazine_, stated that bathing
dress should consist of a pair of drawers and a long-skirted dress. The
recommended drawers were full and confined at the ankle by a band that
was finished with a ruffle. These drawers were attached to a "body" and
fastened so that, even if the skirt washed up, the individual could not
possibly be exposed. The dress was made by pleating or gathering the
desired length of material onto a deep yoke with a separate belt
securing the fullness at the waist. The bottom of the hem was about
three inches above the ankle and was considered rather short. Loose
shirt sleeves were drawn around the wrist by a band which was finished
with a deep ruffle as a protection against the sun. According to this
article many women wore a small talma or cape which hid the figure to
some extent. It was recommended that the drawers, dress, and talma be
made of the same woolen material.

    Bathing-dresses, although generally very unbecoming can be made
    to look very prettily with a little taste. If the dress is of a
    plain color, such as grey, blue or brown, a trimming around the
    talma, collar, yoke, ruffles etc ..., of crimson, green or
    scarlet, is a great addition.[35]

  [35] "Fashions for August, Bathing Dresses," _Peterson's Magazine_
       (August 1856), vol. 30, p. 145.

To complete a bathing toilette the following items were considered
necessary: a pair of large lisle thread gloves, an oil cap to protect
the hair from the water, a straw hat to shield the face from the sun,
and gum overshoes for tender feet.

[Illustration: Figure 8.--BATHING DRESS, c. 1855. (_Courtesy of
Philadelphia Museum of Art._ Photograph by A. J. Wyatt, staff

The red, tan, and blue-green checked bathing dress shown in figure 8 is
jauntily trimmed with crimson braid edging the collar, belt, and wrist
and ankle bands. This costume is a variation of the style described
previously. The drawers, unlike those described in _Peterson's
Magazine_, are sewn to a linen band with linen suspenders attached. The
unfitted, unshaped skirt (8 ft. 8 in. in circumference) is pulled in at
the waist by a belt attached to the center back. A similar technique for
forming a waistline is described in _The Workwoman's Guide_ of 1840.

Women's magazines in the United States from the third quarter of the
19th century show illustrations of bathing costume, but in many
instances these publications used European fashion plates. _Harper's
Bazar_, (spelled thus until 1929) particularly in its early years, used
fashion plates and pattern supplements from its German predecessor _Der
Bazar_. Thus, in one issue one can find a fashion plate showing the
predominantly bifurcated European bathing suit and, in a column on New
York fashions, a separate description of long-skirted bathing dresses
with trousers. During the same period _Peterson's Magazine_ had
illustrations previously used in the London publication, _Queen's

American women seem to have accepted the majority of styles shown in
European fashion plates, except for the skirtless bathing suits. The
writer of an 1868 column on New York fashions sought to convince his
readers to try the more daring European style although he grudgingly
admitted that the "Bathing suits made with trousers and blouse waist
without skirt are objected to by many ladies as masculine and
fast...."[36] This style was in fact, very similar to the costume worn
by men when they bathed with the ladies. A year later, the writer of the
same fashion column had given up the campaign to dress all women in the
skirtless suits and admitted that these imports "... are worn by expert
swimmers, who do not wish to be encumbered with bulky clothing."[37]
Such practical bathing dress was thus limited to a very small number of
progressive women.

  [36] "New York Fashions," _Harper's Bazar_ (August 8, 1868), vol. 1,
       no. 41, p. 643.

  [37] Ibid. (July 10, 1869), vol. 2, no. 28, p. 435.

The majority, consisting of those who were strictly bathers, wore the
ankle-length drawers beneath a long dress as described or illustrated in
the majority of sources that originated in the United States. Why was
the European bathing suit not fully adopted by American women?
Differences between the bathing customs of the two continents
undoubtedly encouraged the development of different dress. While men and
women in the United States bathed together freely at the seashore during
the latter half of the 19th century, this practice was not widely
accepted in England until the early 1900s. In the presence of men,
American women probably felt compelled to retain their more concealing
dress and drawers.

In England swimming seems to have been more popular among women than it
was in the United States. While encouraging its readers to swim, during
the late 1860s, _Queen's Magazine_ used forceful language of a kind that
was not found in American publications until the late 19th century. If
swimming was more acceptable as a feminine exercise in England it is
understandable why English women were more receptive to a functional,
skirtless bathing suit--especially since it was worn only in the
presence of other women.

In 1858, Winslow Homer, who was later to become a well-known American
painter, was welcomed into the society at Newport until it became
apparent that he wanted to sketch the bathers for a weekly newspaper
(see fig. 4). So great were the ensuing objections that he was permitted
to complete his sketches "... provided he depicted the bathers only in
the water and only above the waistline and without divulging the
identity of the bathers."[38]

  [38] B. BROOKE, "Bathing-dress with Hat and Gloves," _Hobbies_ (August
       1958), vol. 63, p. 90.

As can be seen in figure 4, these sketches serve more as a testament of
Homer's fancy than as an accurate historical statement on style. The two
feminine legs exposed in the water from just below the knee to the toe
and the feminine head coverings appear to be anachronisms. According to
several other illustrations of the period, these women were undoubtedly
wearing long drawers. The young artist at 22, however, has been
described as having an eye for feminine beauty and a sense of fashion.
He seems to have exploited to the full the decorative possibilities of
hoop skirts blown by the breeze or agitated by some pretty accident to
discreetly reveal a trim ankle. A drama of breeze versus long skirt
appears with the small feminine figure in the left background of this
print. The force of the waves and the motion of the frolicking bathers
gave the artist opportunity to show two more pretty accidents. The only
head covering he showed for feminine bathers was a ruffled cap that
framed the face. Other sources show Newport bathers wearing the less
attractive wide-brimmed straw hat (fig. 9). The straw headgear worn over
these caps seems more likely since Newport's fashionable belles would
surely have sacrificed appearances and worn a straw hat to avoid an
unfashionable sunburn and tan.

[Illustration: Figure 9.--BATHING HAT of natural color and purple straw,
c. 1880. (Smithsonian photo P-65409.)]

Nevertheless, Homer's sketch reflects characteristics seen in certain
surviving examples from the 1860s--namely that the top was becoming more
fitted, being attached completely to a belt with the fuller skirt
pleated or gathered to the bottom edge of the belt. In the Design
Laboratory Collection of the Brooklyn Museum there is an 1860 black
poplin specimen that may be a bathing dress. This example is trimmed at
the shoulder seam with epaulets, an example of the extent to which
fashion was finally playing a part in bathing costume.[39]

  [39] Photograph and pattern appears in Blanch Payne, _History of
       Costume_ (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 518, 583-584.

The dresses described above appear peculiar not only to 20th century
eyes, but they also seem to have amused mid-19th century correspondents.
One writer in 1857 declared that,

    We don't think a man could identify his own wife when she comes
    out of the bathing-house. A plump figure enters, surrounded with
    a multitude of rustly flounces and scarcely able to squeeze an
    enormous hoop through the door. She is absent a few minutes, and
    presto change! out comes a tall lank apparition, wrapped in the
    scanty folds of something that looks more like a superannuated
    night-gown than anything else, and a battered straw-chapeau
    knocked down over the eyes, and stalks down towards the beach
    with the air and gait of a Tartar chieftain![40] [fig. 10.]

  [40] "An Excursion to Long Branch," _Frank Leslie's Illustrated
       Newspaper_ (August 22, 1857), vol. 4, no. 90, p. 182.

Another writer felt that he

    ... must say--even in the columns of _Frank Leslie's
    Illustrated_--that they don't look very picturesque or pretty
    when _a la Naiade_.... Rather limp, sacks tied in the middle,
    eel-bottles, hydropathic coalheavers and "longshoremen," and
    preternaturally dilapidated Bloomers, would appear to be the
    ideals aimed at.[41] [fig. 11.]

  [41] Loc. cit. (footnote 18).

This use of the term "Bloomers," referring to long full drawers or
trousers, is a reminder of how similar the 1855 bathing gown with
drawers (see fig. 8) was to the reform dress introduced in 1848 and worn
by Amelia Bloomer, the feminist, in 1852.

Despite the evident use of a new waistline treatment, the most popular
bathing costume of the 1870s, according to _Harper's Bazar_, continued
to feature the yoke blouse that reached at least to the knee. This
combination of blouse and skirt was held in position at the waist by a
belt. The high neck was finished with a sailor collar or a standing
pleated frill, while the long sleeves and full Turkish trousers,
buttoned on the side of the ankle, concealed the limbs. In 1873 a column
on New York fashions reported an effort to popularize short-sleeved,
low-throated suits then in favor at European bathing places and which
had been illustrated in the _Bazar_. Nevertheless, the writer hedged
this report by adding that

    It is thought best, however, to provide an extra pair of long
    sleeves that may be buttoned on or basted in the short puffs
    that are sewn in the arm holes. Sometimes a small cape fastening
    closely about the throat is also added.[42]

  [42] "New York Fashions," _Harper's Bazar_ (July 19, 1873), vol. 6,
       no. 29, p. 451.

Nevertheless, sketches of bathing scenes from the seventies indicate
that some American women wore even shorter sleeves and trousers than
those prescribed by the fashion magazines.

Linen and wool fabrics were both suggested in the 1840s, but by the
1870s flannel was most frequently used for bathing dresses, with serge
also being recommended. Navy blue, and to a lesser extent, white, gray,
scarlet, and brown were popular colors in checks as well as solid
colors trimmed with white, red, gray, or blue worsted braid.

[Illustration: Figure 10.--"HOW SHE WENT IN," from _Harper's Bazar_,
August 1870. (Smithsonian photo 61585A.)]

Bathing mantles or cloaks were worn to conceal the moist figure when
crossing the beach. These garments were made of Turkish toweling with
wide sleeves and hoods, and were so long as "to barely escape" the

In 1873 one good bathing cap was described as an oiled silk bag-crown
cap large enough to hold the hair loosely. The frill around the edge was
bound with colored braid. Many ladies preferred, however, to let their
hair hang loose and under a wide-brimmed hat of coarse straw tied down
on the sides to protect their skin from the sun (fig. 9).

Bathing shoes or slippers were generally worn when the shore was rough
and uneven. In 1871 manila sandals were worn, but the most functional
bathing shoes are said to have been high buskins of thick unbleached
cotton duck with cork soles. They were secured with checked worsted
braid. Two years later there were bathing shoes of white duck or sail
canvas with manila soles. Slippers for walking in the sand were "mules"
or merely toes and soles made of flannel, braided to match the cloak,
and sewn to cork soles.

Throughout this period the social aspect of bathing predominated over
the therapeutic goals and women were making a greater effort to
transform their bathing garments into attractive and functional outfits.
Motivated by the presence of men at the seashore and by the competition
with other women for masculine attention, ladies were more concerned
with the style of their bathing dresses and appropriate trimmings. Thus
bathing costume joined the ranks of other fashions described in women's

[Illustration: Figure 11.--"HOW SHE CAME OUT," from _Harper's Bazar_,
August 1870. (Smithsonian photo 61585B.)]

Now that women were frolicking in the water rather than simply being
dunked several times, their costume became somewhat more functional.
Long trousers gave them greater freedom in the water although the skirts
which continued to be worn, tended to negate this improvement. Even as
early as the 1870s there were efforts to shorten sleeves and eliminate
high necklines. This trend to make bathing dress more practical
increased in momentum toward the end of the century.

[Illustration: Figure 12.--BATHING COSTUMES from a supplement to _The
Tailor's Review_, July 1895.

(_Courtesy of Library of Congress._)]


Although attitudes toward sports were more enlightened by the 1880s,
many women continued to wear the old bathing dress with its belted
blouse extending to a long skirt and a pair of trousers. As an alternate
to this garb, the "princess style" was developed with the blouse and
trousers cut in one piece or else sewn permanently to the same belt. A
separate skirt extending below the knee was buttoned at the waist to
conceal the figure. This new style in bathing costume was probably
derived from an innovation in women's underwear. During the late 1870s a
new style of undergarment, the "combination" of chemise and drawers, had
come into use. Petticoats could be fastened to buttons sewn around the
waist of the combination. This streamlining of undergarments helped the
lady of fashion to maintain a desirably svelte figure. Apparently the
advantages of this streamlining were obvious, because it was not long
before women were quietly adapting this style to bathing dresses. By the
1890s the skirt was often omitted for swimming (fig. 12), giving the
more active women more freedom in the water. Following popular dress
styles, the top of the bathing costume was bloused over the belt. The
sailor collar, either large or small, was a great favorite, but a
straight standing collar with rows of white braid was also worn.

The "princess style" was not the only innovation available in bathing
dress. _Harper's Bazar_ reported in 1881 that imported French bathing
suits[43] for ladies were made without sleeves, since any covering on
the arm interfered with the freedom desirable for swimming.
Nevertheless, according to other contemporary fashion descriptions,
American bathing suits retained their long sleeves until the early 1880s
when the foreign fashion of short sleeves came to the United States. In
1885 it was reported that

    The sleeves may be the merest 'caps' four or five inches deep
    under the arm, curved narrow toward the top, and lapped there or
    they may be half-long and straight, reaching to the elbows, or
    else they may be the regular coat sleeves covering the arms to
    the wrist. With the short sleeves it is customary to add the
    sleeves cut from a gauze vest to give the arm some protection
    from the sun.[44]

  [43] The term "bathing suit" as opposed to "bathing dress" came into
       use in the last quarter of the 19th century when the bifurcated
       bathing garment with a shorter skirt was widely accepted. The two
       terms, however, continued to be used interchangeably, with
       "bathing dress" appearing less frequently.

  [44] "New York Fashions," _Harper's Bazar_ (July 4, 1885), vol. 18,
       no. 27, p. 427.

Sleeves were pushed up in 1890 and puffed high about the shoulders by
means of elastic tape in the hem. By 1893 fashion reports acknowledged
that sleeve length was a matter of individual choice.

Despite this neat resolution of the diminishing sleeve, contemporary
sketches of bathing scenes indicate that some women in the United States
were wearing the shorter sleeves even earlier.

Short full trousers, reaching just below the knee, accompanied by
knee-length skirts--sometimes worn even shorter--succeeded the long
Turkish trousers and ankle-length skirt. As the trousers diminished in
length, long stockings or bathing shoes with long stocking tops became a
necessary part of the bathing costume to cover the lower limbs,
particularly in mixed bathing (see fig. 1). The stockings, which were
cotton or wool, plain or fancy, and of any color or combination of
colors in keeping with the costume, were worn with a variety of bathing
shoes, sandals, or slippers when bathing off a rocky shore. Foot
coverings were usually made of white canvas; the slippers were held on
by a spiral arrangement of braid or ribbon about the ankles, while the
laced shoes were often made with heavy cork soles. A gaiter shoe or
combination shoe and stocking was made of waterproof cloth, laced up the
sides, and reached to about the knees. Low rubber shoes were also worn.

Bathing caps of waxed linen or oiled silk were used to protect the hair.
They had whale bone in the brim and could be adjusted by drawstrings in
the back. Blue, white, or ecru rubber hats were also used. These caps
had large full crowns--which held in all the hair--and wired brims. A
wide-brimmed rough straw hat, tied on with a strip of trimming braid or
with ribbon, was sometimes worn as protection against the sun (fig. 9).

Bathing mantles like those of the 1870s were still being worn by the
late 19th century and these were frequently trimmed with colored braid.
Cotton tapes sewn in parallel rows, mohair braid, or strips of flannel
were still being used to make the bathing dress more attractive.

Navy blue and white, as well as ecru, maroon, gray, and olive were
popular colors for the bathing dress. In 1890 the writer of a fashion
column thought it pertinent to add that "... black bathing suits are
worn as a matter of choice, not merely by those dressing in
mourning."[45] Apparently the wearing of black no longer had this
exclusive significance when bathing, but prior to 1890 it did.

  [45] Ibid. (July 5, 1890), vol. 23, no. 27, p. 523.

As women became more active in the water and were learning to swim they
began to accept more practical changes in bathing costume. Not only the
style, as described previously, but also the fabric was considered for
its functional characteristics. Flannel was still widely used but was
being replaced by serge which was not as heavy when wet. Another
indication of this trend was that stockinet, a knitted material, was
gaining in popularity at the end of the century.

The "princess style" of the early 1890s combined the drawers and bodice
in one garment: the separate skirt fell just short of the ends of the
drawers which covered the knees. By the mid-1890s, however, the drawers
which were now called knickerbockers, were shortened so as to be
completely covered by the knee-length skirt. These knickerbockers were
either attached to the waist in the popular "princess style" or they
were fastened to the waist by a series of flat bone buttons.

During this same period, the mid-1890s, knitted, cotton tights were
sometimes worn in place of knickerbockers. Bathing tights differed from
the knickerbockers in that they were hemmed rather than gathered on an
elastic band at the lower edge and that they were not attached to the
waist. When tights were used they were completely concealed by a
one-piece, knee-length bathing dress. The use of the more streamlined
bathing tights was another step toward more functional bathing costume.
Despite these improvements, most women continued to wear stockings,
usually black, when they bathed or swam in public. The dictates of
fashion and standards of modesty continued to conflict with practical

[Illustration: Figure 13.--BATHING DRESS OF BLACK "MOHAIR," c. 1900.
(Smithsonian photo 60383.)]

As with street dress, corsets seem to have been an important though
unseen bathing article necessary for maintaining smart posture. In 1896
it was reported that

    Unless a woman is very slender, bathing corsets should be worn.
    If they are not laced tightly they are a help instead of a
    hindrance to swimming, and some support is needed for a figure
    that is accustomed to wearing stays.[46]

  [46] Ibid. (June 13, 1896), vol. 29, no. 24, p. 503.

While describing the bathing dresses available in 1910 an article noted:
"Some of these are made up with ... princess forms that are boned so as
to do away with the bathing corset."[47]

  [47] Ibid. (July 1910), vol. 43, no. 7, p. 552.

The bodice of the bathing costume continued to be bloused, but by 1905
it was modified to be merely loose. An article appearing in 1896 noted
that bathing suits should be cut high in the neck, not tight around the
throat, but close enough to prevent burning by the sun. The sailor
collar continued to be used during the late 1890s but became less
fashionable shortly after the turn of the century. Nevertheless there
had to be some white around the neck for the bathing dress to be
considered smart. The puffed sleeves, which had become popular in the
late 1890s were modified in breadth and length to allow free use of the
muscles in swimming (fig. 13).

In 1897 fashion magazines were suggesting that skirts of bathing dresses
looked best when the front breadth was shaped narrower toward the belt,
while by 1902 the skirts were fitted over the hips in order to delineate
the figure. In 1905 pleated skirts again became fashionable, although
flared skirts were still acceptable.

Dark blue and black were the popular colors, although white, red, gray,
and green were also used. Flannel was no longer recommended for bathing
dress; serge and "mohair"--a fabric with a cotton warp and a mohair or
alpaca weft--were widely used. The impractical bathing dress of silk
fabric was worn by those who could afford this extravagance; thus, the
conspicuous consumption of the "leisure class" was even found at the

Bathing hats were still being worn but it was considered more
fashionable to wear a rubber or oil silk cap covered with a bright silk
turban when there was a surf. For the bather who seldom ventured very
far into the water the most fashionable practice was to have no covering
at all.

Throughout the 19th century bathing costume followed an impelling course
toward becoming more functional. As the popularity of recreational
bathing and then swimming for women increased, the number of yards of
fabric required to make a bathing dress decreased. Nevertheless, by the
1900s, many women knew how to swim, but the majority were still bathers.
Thus bathing suits continued in use through the first quarter of the
20th century.

Swimming Costume

Bathing costume did not evolve gracefully into the swim suit, nor was
there an abrupt replacement of one garment for the other. Instead, a
garb designed for swimming emerged in the 19th century as tentatively
and as poorly received as had the suggestion that women should be active
in the water. The growing popularity of swimming and the changing status
of women eventually made it possible for the swimming suit to replace
the bathing suit in the 1920s. By the 1930s, however, this trend was
accelerated by a growing advertising and ready-to-wear clothing
industry. Thus a history of the swimming costume tends to divide itself
into two sections: early swimming suits and the influence of the swim
suit industry.


The earliest reference to swimming costume I have found was in 1869. At
this date swimming in the United States was considered a masculine
skill, exercise, and recreation; only men were provided with a real
opportunity to swim at popular watering places. As described previously,
_Harper's Bazar_ reported that American women in general rejected the
European bathing suit made with long trousers and a skirtless waist.
Nevertheless, this costume was "... worn by expert swimmers, who do not
wish to be encumbered with bulky clothing."[48]

  [48] "New York Fashions," _Harper's Bazar_ (July 10, 1869), vol. 2,
       no. 28, p. 435.

In the 1870s the rare descriptions of this more functional
garment--called "swimming suit" even at this early date--were limited to
a sentence or two buried within long columns of fine print describing
popular bathing apparel. One mentions a "... single knitted worsted
garment, fitting the figure, with waist and trousers in one."[49]
Another was made without sleeves as "one garment, the blouse and
trousers being cut all in one, like the sleeping garments worn by small
children."[50] These more practical bifurcated garments probably derived
from the European suit of the 1860s that had been rejected by the
majority of American women. For example, an English source reported that
in 1866 the following garment was worn: "... Swimming Costume, a body
and trousers cut in one, secures perfect liberty of action and does not
expose the figure."[51]

  [49] Ibid. (July 13, 1872), vol. 5, no. 28, p. 459.

  [50] Ibid. (July 25, 1874), vol. 7, no. 30, p. 475.

  [51] As quoted in C. WILLETT CUNNINGTON, _English Women's Clothing in
       the 19th Century_ (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1958), p. 225.

The descriptions of American swimming suits, however brief, offered
evidence that the pastime was growing in popularity with women.
Generally speaking, 19th century women's magazines were mere
disseminators of fine and decorous ideas and practices for well-mannered
ladies; their editors were not innovators. With such an editorial policy
it is understandable that these magazines would not, as a rule,
publicize trends of popular origin until they were fairly well
established. The skirtless swimming suit of the 1870s was no doubt more
common in the United States than its meager description in _Harper's
Bazar_ would seem to indicate.

As long as feminine swimming was not generally accepted, however,
efforts to develop practical swimming suits remained isolated owing to
the lack of communication between manufacturer and consumer and to
traditional attitudes. Feminine interest in swimming and physical
activities threatened belief in the "weaker-sex" that contributed to
maintaining the traditional masculine and feminine roles; efforts to
develop functional swimming dress also attacked established standards of
feminine modesty. These challenges to the status quo were met with the
weapon of the complacent majority--silence. Consequently, from the third
quarter of the 19th century, when we find the first reference to a
specialized garment for swimming in the United States, writings on
swimming costume appeared infrequently until the 1920s.

In 1886 two "ladies' bathing jerseys" and two bathing suits of the
traditional type appeared in the _First Illustrated Catalogue of Knitted
Bathing Suits_ of J. J. Pfister Company in San Francisco. The captions
over the illustrations leave no question that the briefer bathing
jerseys were intended for swimming while the others were for bathing.
These jerseys--form-fitting tunics that were mid-thigh in length--were
made with high necks and cap sleeves. Underneath this garment women wore
trunks that extended to the knee and stockings; there was also the
alternate choice of tights, a combination of trunks and stockings. To
complete the outfit the feminine reader was encouraged to buy a knitted
skull cap.

Apparently these bathing jerseys were successful; three, instead of two,
jerseys appeared in the same catalog in 1890. It is obvious from this
later catalog, however, that there was a greater demand for bathing
dresses since twelve designs of the skirted costume were featured as
opposed to the two dresses in the first issue.

[Illustration: Figure 14.--THE RECOMMENDED COSTUME FOR SWIMMING from J.
Parmly Paret, _The Woman's Book of Sports_, 1901. (Smithsonian photo

Even by the early 20th century it is difficult to find specific
references to a swimming suit in women's magazines; only occasionally
does a concern with swimming obtrude into the traditional descriptions
of bathing dress. In _The Woman's Book of Sports_, however, J. Parmly
Paret was specific about the requirements for a suitable swimming
costume in 1901.

    It is particularly important that nothing tight should be worn
    while swimming, no matter how fashionable a dress may be for
    bathing. The exercise requires the greatest freedom, and a
    swimming costume should never include corsets, tight sleeves, or
    a skirt below the knees. The freedom of the shoulders is the
    most important of all, but anything tight around the body
    interferes with the breathing and the muscles of the back, while
    a long skirt--even one a few inches below the knees--binds the
    legs constantly in making their strokes.[52]

  [52] J. PARMLY PARET, _The Woman's Book of Sports_ (New York: D.
       Appleton & Co., 1901), p. 74.

Although this costume (fig. 14) more closely resembles the traditional
bathing dress than the jersey described previously, this discussion
illustrates the growing dichotomy between bathing dress and swimming
dress and between fashionable styles and functional styles.

Photographs of East coast beach scenes in 1903 show a few women wearing
costumes different from the black or navy blue bathing dress worn by the
majority. These independent spirits seem to be wearing close-fitting
knitted trunks that cover the knees or, when with stockings, come within
an inch or two above the knee. Above these trunks they appear to be
wearing knitted one-piece tunics or belted blouses that cover the hips.
This costume, sleeveless or short-sleeved, and with a simplified
neckline, must have been the functional suit of its day.

An important impetus was given to the development of the swimming suit
with the entrance of women into swimming as a competitive sport. On
September 5, 1909, Adeline Trapp wore a one-piece knitted swimming suit
when she became the first woman to swim across the East River in New
York, through the treacherous waters of Hell Gate. Both the swimming
suit and the swim were part of a campaign devised by Wilbert
Longfellow--of the U.S. Volunteer Life Saving Corps--to encourage women
to learn to swim.

Adeline Trapp was a summer employee of the Life Saving Corps in 1909.
Mr. Longfellow saw in the 20-year-old Brooklyn school teacher a
respectable young woman who could be a source of publicity. He ordered
her to get a one-piece swimming suit for the swim. As early as 1899 in
England, a woman participating in competitions organized by the Amateur
Swimming Association could have worn a one-piece, skirtless, knitted
costume with a shaped sleeve at least three inches long, a slightly
scooped neck, and legs that extended to within three inches of the knee.
Mr. Longfellow may have had this English suit in mind. He might have
known of similar suits in the United States or he might have simply
wanted to free Adeline of yards of fabric to make her more competitive
with male swimmers. Nevertheless, Adeline Trapp did not know that the
English suits existed, nor did she know where she could find one. She
spent many hours going from one American manufacturer to another trying
on men's knitted suits. She found that they were all cut too low at the
neck and armholes and did not cover enough of the legs to preclude
criticism. At this point a friend who worked for a stocking manufacturer
offered to get her a suitable costume from England. This costume, a
knitted, gray cotton suit--whether originally for a man or woman in
England is not known--was the one Adeline wore when she swam Hell Gate.

Although more than thirty men attempted the swim, the fact that a woman
accomplished the feat made newspaper headlines. Following this event,
Miss Trapp received a terse letter from the Brooklyn School Board
stating that they thought it improper for an educator of Brooklyn
children to appear in public so scantily dressed in a one-piece swimming
costume. For her future swims Adeline Trapp was careful to have someone
carry a blanket to throw over her as she emerged from the water.[53]

  [53] Telephone interview with Adeline Trapp Mulhenberg, May 1966.

In 1910, Annette Kellerman arrived in the United States from Australia
by way of England. For her fancy diving exhibitions she wore sleeveless
one-piece knitted swimming tights that covered her from neck to toe--a
costume she had probably adopted in England.

The decade from 1910 to 1920 was a crucial period in the history of
bathing and swimming costume. Popular attitudes were changing in favor
of the woman who swam but, as frequently occurs in social reforms, there
was a cultural lag between public opinion and the policies of
institutions. The Red Cross, which began its excellent water safety
program in 1914, taught women to swim but did not admit women as Life
Saving Corps members until 1920. Symbolic of the conflict between old
and new attitudes were the relative roles of bathing and swimming
costume during this period. As Annette Kellerman described them:

    There are two kinds ... those that are adapted for use in water,
    and those that are unfit for use except on dry land. If you are
    going to swim, wear a water bathingsuit. But if you are merely
    going to play on the beach, and pose for the camera fiends, you
    may safely wear the dry land variety.... I am certain that there
    isn't a single reason under the sun why everybody should not
    wear lightweight suits. Anyone who persuades you to wear the
    heavy skirty kind is endangering your life.[54]

  [54] ANNETTE KELLERMAN, _How to Swim_ (New York: George H. Doran
       Company, 1918), p. 47.

Chic women's magazines, however, were still reluctant to admit in their
fashion pages that a more utilitarian costume existed. The June 1, 1917
issue of _Vogue_ reported that there were two kinds of bathing suits: a
loose straight suit and those on surplice lines, "... which hold their
place by virtue of being so very becoming."[55]

  [55] _Vogue_ (June 1, 1917), vol. 49, no. 11, p. 85.

The most popular of these, the surplice, was not a novelty of the season
but a continuation of 19th century bathing suit styles. Fashion
illustrations show that the hemline of the skirt was approaching the
middle of the knee, with the bloomers remaining hidden. There was also a
revival of the style that permitted the bloomers to show several inches
below the skirt. In this case the bloomers reached the knee and the
skirt was several inches shorter. Both versions were shown with short
sleeves or cap sleeves, or sleeveless; "V" necklines with collars and
square necklines were widely used. The more fashionable creations were
made of silk taffeta or "surf satin," while the majority were made of
"mohair," wool jersey, worsted, or closely woven cotton. Black and navy
blue were unquestionably the favorite colors.

The loose straight suit, which evidently gained its inspiration from the
chemise frock of the period, had no waistline and hung straight from the
shoulders (fig. 15); a belt or sash was frequently looped below the
natural waistline on the hips. The chemise-type of bathing suit differed
from the surplice only in having no fitted waist and requiring less

[Illustration: Figure 15.--BLACK SILK BATHING DRESS, 1923.

(Smithsonian photo P-65412.)]

In the June 15, 1917 issue, _Vogue_ modified its position of two weeks
earlier to acknowledge that there was a third style of costume worn in
the water. Again, the descriptions of the surplice and chemise-type
bathing suits were accompanied by numerous illustrations. No drawings,
however, were published to show the knitted jersey suit that was
described as "... usually sleeveless, quite short and fairly straight
..." and "... intended for the woman who swims expertly."[56]

  [56] Ibid. (June 15, 1917), vol. 49, no. 12, p. 67.

As late as the early 1920s, the fashion pages of _Harper's Bazar_ and
_Vogue_ were concentrated on the bathing suits, aiming at readers
involved in the social life of the seaside resorts--lounging about the
beach with occasional splashing in the water. The growing numbers of
women who wanted swimming suits, however, had only to turn to the
advertising sections of these same magazines to find that even in 1915
such shops as Bonwit Teller & Co. and B. Altman & Co. were advertising
knitted swimming suits.

In June 1916, _Delineator_ solved the dilemma of bathing versus swimming
costume in an intriguing article written to sell a pattern for a bathing
costume. In description and presentation of illustrations, the article
emphasized a costume with "all the features essential to a practical
swimming-suit."[57] The blouse and bloomers were attached at the waist
in this garment which had a square neckline and no skirt or sleeves.
Made up in wool jersey, this would have been a practical swimming
costume for the period. But this was not the only style available from
this one pattern. The following variations were included: a sailor
collar on a "V" neckline; a high-standing collar, long sleeves; and a
detachable skirt with the fullness either pleated or gathered into a
waistband, to be worn long to the knees or just short enough to show
several inches of the bloomer. In this way _Delineator_ succeeded in
satisfying nearly every degree of conservatism--an amazing

  [57] "For the Modern Mermaid," _Delineator_ (June 1916), vol. 38, no.
       6, p. 52.

The spring edition of _Sears, Roebuck and Co. Catalog_ for 1916 offered
a one-piece, or "California-style," knitted worsted bathing suit with
the underpiece sewn to a skirt. This costume was less elaborate than the
other dresses shown, although it was still knee length. The 1918 spring
catalog showed two one-piece knitted outfits suitable for swimming in
striking contrast to the surplice bathing dresses that were also
offered. By 1920 all of the bathing costumes illustrated in the _Sears,
Roebuck and Co. Catalog_ were of the more abbreviated and functional

In 1918 Annette Kellerman recommended that serious swimmers wear
close-fitting swimming tights or the two-piece suits commonly worn by
men. Being quick to admit that this costume would not be tolerated at
all beaches, she told dedicated swimmers to

    ... get one-piece tights anyway and wear over the tights the
    lightest garment you can get. It should be a loose sleeveless
    garment hung from the shoulders. Never have a tight waist band.
    It is a hindrance. Also on beaches where stockings are enforced
    your one-piece undergarment should have feet, so that the
    separate stocking and its attendant garter is abolished.[58]

  [58] Loc. cit. (footnote 54).

[Illustration: Figure 16.--ONE-PIECE SWIMMING SUIT OF KNITTED WOOL, c.
1918. (Smithsonian photo P-65413.)]

Knitted swimming suits found in advertisements of the period were either
one-piece or two-piece; the trunks were attached or separate, but they
always extended a few inches below the brief skirt. Although this
costume could be considered sleeveless, in some examples the suit was
built up under the arm--a concession to the demands of modesty (fig.
16). The scooped or "V" neckline with no collar was relatively high; in
order to put on or remove the suit it was unbuttoned at one shoulder.

It was this type of swimming costume which evolved into the garment that
dominated the fashion pages of the mid-1920s.

Changes in costume brought about by the acceptance of swimming also
affected leg covering. By 1920 fashion pages showed stockings that
reached only to the calf and many advertisements for the abbreviated
knitted bathing suits presented the lower leg covered with only the high
laced bathing shoe (fig. 17) or, in a few cases, bare. Bathing slippers
were black satin or black or white canvas held on the feet by ribbon
criss-crossed up the leg to tie at mid-calf. Shoes were of satin or
canvas, laced in the front to mid-calf.

There was a wide variety of colorful rubber caps; some were gathered on
a band or with a ruffle while others were closely fitted with brims.
Also popular was a close-fitting rubber cap with a colorful scarf tied
around it; swimmers did without the scarf.

Despite the distinction between the two types of bathing apparel, the
beach cloak continued to be used by both the serious swimmer and those
who stayed safely in the shallows. Some bathing wraps had large collars
and were only mid-calf in length. Colorful beach hats, beach parasols,
bags, and blankets were used, particularly by the bather who seldom got

The acceptance of swimming as a feminine activity provided an impetus
for the use of the knitted swimming suit; but standards of modesty had
to change before this suit could gain wide acceptance. Bathing dresses
of the 19th century had been designed to cover, conceal, and obscure not
only the torso but the limbs as well. The swimming suit that was gaining
acceptance in the early 1920s not only revealed the arms and a good part
of the legs, but actually dared to follow the lines of the torso.
Contemporary descriptions, that seem amusingly cautious today, included
such statements as "... all Annette Kellerman Bathing Attire is
distinguished by an incomparable, daring beauty of fit that always
remains refined."[59] Even less cautious was a statement that these
bathing suits were "famous ... for their perfect fit and exquisite,
plastic beauty of line."[60]

  [59] _Harper's Bazar_ (June 1920), vol. 55, no. 6, p. 138.

  [60] Ibid. (June 1921), 54th year, no. 2504, p. 101.

The growing numbers of women who wore the new styles of bathing dress
were a cause of concern to self-appointed guardians of decency. In 1917
the convention of the American Association of Park Superintendents at
New Orleans adopted a series of bathing regulations for city beaches
which dealt with the problems of the changing bathing suit. In general
these regulations specified that "... No all-white or flesh-colored
suits are permitted or suits that expose the chest lower than a line
drawn on a level with the arm pits."[61] In regard to ladies' bathing
suits these men agreed that

    Blouse and bloomer suits may be worn with or without stockings,
    provided the blouse has quarter-arm sleeves or close-fitting arm
    holes, and provided the bloomers are full and not shorter than
    four inches above the knee.[62]

  [61] "Bathing Regulations for City Beaches," _American City_ (May
       1917), vol. 16, no. 5, p. 537.

  [62] Loc. cit. (footnote 61).

Regulations for knitted suits were similar, with the added caution that
the skirt hem could be no more than two inches above the lower edge of
the trunks. As late as 1923 these regulations were in effect at public
beaches in Cleveland and Chicago.

By 1923 a permanent change was occurring in the design of beach apparel.
The chemise-style bathing dress of black taffeta or satin still appeared
in the fashion magazines (fig. 15), but by 1929 it had disappeared. The
result of the struggle between the fancy bathing suit and the plain
knitted suit became obvious even in the popular magazines of the period.
In the opening paragraphs of a short story, Shirley, the villainess,
donned a smart bathing suit of puffy black taffeta, with a
patent-leather belt and a scarlet scarf, and baked in the shadow of a
big umbrella. Margaret, the heroine, in a plain knitted suit and black
cap was intent only upon diving, plunging, and splashing for her own
enjoyment. In another story a young lady, who came out of the sea
wearing a "... bathing suit so scanty it seemed a mere gesture flung
carelessly to the proprieties ..." described herself as a modern young

  [63] JANE PRIDE, "Pick-up," _Delineator_ (May 1927), vol. 110, no. 5,
       p. 15.

In the early twenties advertisements capitalized on the functional
characteristics of swimming suits. A 1923 advertisement declared:

    No! No! Not a bathing suit! No! The Wil Wite is a swimming suit.
    The difference is great--very great. A bathing suit is something
    in which to "Sun" oneself and wear on the beach. A swimming suit
    is a garment made expressly for those who swim. It is free from
    frills and furbelows. It follows the form with the same
    sincerity that a neat silk stocking clings to a trim ankle. It
    fits when dry or wet ... it is a real swimming suit.[64]

  [64] _Harper's Bazar_ (June 1923), 56th year, no. 2528, p. 5.

The knitted swimming suit which achieved dominance over the bathing suit
in the 1920s was similar to its earlier version except that both the
armhole and the neckline were lower. This made it possible to put on the
suit without unbuttoning one of the straps at the shoulder--a feature
that was omitted in this newer style. Sometimes a sash was looped
loosely around the waist; a geometrically shaped monogram provided a
smart decoration. The affluent swimmer could distinguish herself from
the masses by wearing silk jersey. During the last half of this decade
women coquettishly adopted a man's swimming suit, consisting of a
striped sleeveless jersey shirt with dark colored trunks and a white

[Illustration: Figure 17.--BATHING SHOES, 1910. (Smithsonian photo

Perhaps the last stand for the bathing dress was the appearance of the
"dressmaker suit" toward the end of the 1920s and on into the early
1930s. The neck and shoulder line copied those of currently fashionable
evening dresses, with a parallel treatment of the skirt, which was
shortened to end just below the hips. This suit was worn by women
reluctant to brave the revealingly unadorned but popular swimming suit.

A depilatory advertisement took advantage of the increasing
"stockingless vogue" and explained that "Women who love swimming for the
sake of the sport, find stockings a great hindrance to their
enjoyment."[65] By the end of the twenties, the stocking for bathing
and swimming had become an article of the past.

  [65] _Delineator_ (June 1923), vol. 102, no. 6, p. 95.

Although women were accepted in athletics and had achieved a generally
wider role in public life, white, untanned skin was still the ideal in
the 1920s. Thus sunproof creams, beach coats, and beach umbrellas were
still important.

According to the well-known "trickle-down" theory of fashion, styles of
dress first become fashionable among the socially elite and wealthy and
are then, in time, emulated by those at lower socio-economic levels. The
knitted swimming suit, however, entered the fashion pages by a different
route. It had its insignificant start with the skirtless bifurcated
garments of the late 1860s. Going against popular opinion, some women
did swim. They violated prevalent standards of modesty by continuing to
wear a functional suit. Gradually the demand grew. A plain, utilitarian
garment was needed; pressure increased. Thus, by the 1920s the swimming
suit prevailed, complimenting the image of the newly emancipated "modern


Along with the increased popularity of swimming and the appearance of
the knitted swimming suit we note the rapid development of the
ready-to-wear swim suit industry. During the last half of the 19th
century women frequently made their own bathing dresses with the aid of
paper pattern supplements that appeared in women's magazines of the
period. Dressmakers also may have used these patterns to outfit their
clients for their summer excursions. On the other hand, ladies in the
large cities could purchase bathing dresses at furnishing stores or rent
them at the large public beaches. A small advertisement in _Harper's
Bazar_, August 9, 1873, announced that in addition to gauze undershirts,
linen drawers, collars and cuffs, Union Adams & Co. of New York had
bathing dresses for sale. The notice is noteworthy when one considers
that the ready-to-wear clothing industry and the field of advertising
were in their infancy.

With the increased popularity of the knitted suit, knitting mills
included men's and women's swimming apparel in their more prosaic lines
of underwear and sweaters. Many companies advertised the new product,
steadily increasing their range until the inevitable occurred. In 1921 a
national advertising campaign for swimming suits was initiated by
Jantzen, a hitherto obscure knitting mill whose production had been
limited to sweaters, woolen hosiery, and jackets for Chinese workmen.
Capitalizing on the growing interest in swimming, Jantzen prominently
advertised swimming suits instead of bathing dresses. The retail stores
selling these suits advertised locally, but national advertising became
the domain of the manufacturers, educating the public to associate
certain positive qualities with their names.

To the delight of the swim suit industry, swimming was more than a
passing vogue. In 1934, a National Recreation Association study on the
use of leisure time found that among ninety-four free-time activities
swimming was second only to movies in popularity.[66] Although the
number of swimmers was increasing, competition caused the swim suit
industry to take a new approach. Manufacturers attempted to increase the
volume of sales through advertising by emphasizing style. In 1927 one
company advertised a national appeal to woman's vanity by declaring that
beach _uniforms_ were out and that beach _styles_ were in.

  [66] _The Leisure Hours of 5,000 People; a Report of a Study of
       Leisure Time Activities and Desires_ (New York, National
       Recreation Assoc., 1934).

It was a general characteristic of the 1930s that swimming suits covered
less of the bather. The attached trunks of the swimming suit no longer
extended down the leg but it survived unseen beneath the vestigial
remains of a skirt.

The diminishing coverage of the swim suit was also related to a changing
attitude toward sun exposure. For years women had protected their
delicate skin to prevent any unladylike, healthy appearance. The barrier
against a lady having a tan deteriorated as women became accepted into
athletic activities. By 1930, women eagerly sought a sun tan. Not only
were there lotions to help the neophyte sun-worshiper acquire a rich
even tan, but creams were available for the impatient who wished an
instant tan. In line with this trend, swim suit manufacturers and
sellers promoted and sold low sun-back or California styles, halter
necks, and cut-out sections that exposed various portions of the
midriff. The favorite suit, however, was the form-fitting maillot of
wool jersey with no skirt.

In the early 1930s, the textile trade journals applauded the increasing
stress on styling as a means of encouraging the consumer to buy a new
suit rather than to use "last year's." Stylishness was introduced into
knitted suits through the use of a greater range of solid colors.
Parti-colored suits, with stripes and slashes of a second or even a
third color, were also featured (fig. 18). Knitting mills were pressed
to introduce novelty effects such as mesh, waffle motifs, and lace
patterns in knitted fabrics.

1930. (_Courtesy of Cole of California._)]

The insistent emphasis on novelty encouraged the development of such
items as all-rubber swimming suits with embossed surfaces simulating
knitted textiles. Although this innovation was not successful, because
the suits were clammy and easily torn, rubber did find a definite use in
swimming suits with the introduction of Lastex--a yarn made with a core
of rubber wrapped by a fine thread of another fiber. The following
advertisement for swimming suits made with Lastex best explains why this
important innovation is still valued by the industry today:

    There's no wrinkle, no bag, no sag, even under the most ruthless
    sun! No other human device can even approximate that utter
    freedom, that perfection of fit, at rest or in motion, that airy
    but strictly legal sense of wearing nothing at all. There is no
    substitute for this elastic yarn, which imparts lasting
    elasticity to any fabric.[67]

  [67] _Harper's Bazaar_ (June 1934), 68th year, no. 2660, p. 9.

Having exhausted the novelty effects of knitted swim suits, women in the
late 1930s began to respond eagerly to the wide range of decorative
possibilities found in woven fabrics. Cotton and the relatively new
man-made fibers such as Celanese acetate and Dupont rayon were used in
fabrics such as ginghams, chambrays, piques, and featherweight elastic
satins. To the pleasure of the fashion editors, who claimed to be
anxious for some relief from the nudity of the maillot, suits of woven
fabrics were made with flared skirts. These had knitted linings of
cotton, acetate, or wool which satisfied any taste as to warmth or
coolness on the beach. The belief was prevalent that a wool swimming
suit was needed for warmth. In the 1940s the two-piece, bare-midriff
suit with tight shorts or flared skirt was a popular and logical
development from the earlier suits with cut-out sections around the
midriff. The more extreme French bikini, however, was not adopted by
American women when it was first introduced in the 1940s.

By the end of the forties the one-piece swimming suit staged a comeback
with a slight variation: the new suits were structurally sculptured to
mold, control, and stay put while swimming or sunning. They were the
product of ingenious engineering, inside and out. The use of shirring
and skillful cutting and handling of fabric focused attention on the
bust line, while the frequent use of Lastex tended to streamline the
hips like a girdle. Inside, the careful use of wire and plastic boning
permitted many of these suits to assume a shape of their own and even to
be worn without straps.

A short-lived revival of the covered-up look appeared in the fashion
pages in 1954 but, unlike the suits with covered arms and neck of the
previous century, these suits drew attention to the parts of the body
that were covered. The fate of this unsuccessful novelty is a good
illustration of the fact that, ultimately, the buyer has the final word
in the volatile field of feminine fashion. The swim suit manufacturers
apparently misinterpreted the American woman's readiness to discard the
more revealing two-piece suit in favor of an altered form of the
maillot. Always ready with novelties to make last year's suit obsolete,
the manufacturers tried to encourage women into a more extreme
covered-up look. Despite the power of national advertising women were
unwilling to go back in time. The female beach-goer and sun-worshiper
opposed a suit that might interfere with the tanning process.

By 1960, the production of swim suits had become a big business with
mass distribution and mass markets. Expanded world-wide transportation
facilities and increased leisure and affluence in the United States
created a demand for midwinter vacation clothing for use in warmer
climates, and the manufacturing of swim suits became a year-round
undertaking, producing 14,728 million knitted and woven suits in
women's, misses, and junior sizes in 1960.[68]

  [68] Compiled from "Production of Selected Items of Knit Outerwear and
       Swimwear; 1960-1961," _Apparel Survey 1961_ (1962), series
       M23A(61)-2, p. 14.


The earliest bathing dress for women in the United States may have been
an old smock or shift, followed by a bathing gown based on the shift or
chemise. Although women's bathing and swimming costume achieved an
identity of its own during the 19th century, the evolution of this garb
followed certain innovations in women's underclothing, namely, drawers
in the first half of the 19th century, the "combination" of the late
1870s, and the brassiere and panties of the 1930s. The greatest number
of minor style changes, however, were direct reflections of fashions in
street dress. The rising hemline and, at times, the discarding of a
skirt during periods when women wore long dresses for other activities
can be attributed to changes caused by the functional requirements of
bathing and swimming; the shortening of sleeves and trousers in the last
quarter of the 19th century were also functional improvements. The
benefits of the shorter trousers, however, were minimized when modesty
required women to cover their exposed legs with stockings.

Swimming suits have been considered a 20th century innovation; in fact
one corporation is under the impression that a member of their staff was
responsible for the first use of the term "swimming suit" early in the
century. The findings presented in this paper show that some women were
wearing "swimming suits" that were distinctly different from bathing
dresses as early as the 1870s and that both co-existed for some 50
years. Bathing dresses disappeared in the 1920s with the widespread
acceptance of its functional counterpart; "bathing suit" no longer
referred to a special type of costume but became interchangeable with
the term "swimming suit."

The insistent trend toward more functional costume reached its ultimate
conclusion with the refinements of the knitted swimming suit in the
1930s. Subsequent changes have not improved upon the functional design
of this classic suit. In many instances these variations have been
merely to satisfy the feminine desire for distinctive apparel and the
industry's need for perishable fashions. Female competitive swimmers
have continued to wear the simple knitted suit--now of nylon rather than

The changes since the 1930s have shown a trend toward diminution in the
coverage of the swimming suit. One cannot be certain what this means for
the future, but it is unlikely that either the swim suit industry or
standards of modesty of the near future will permit a total elimination
of swimming costume. We can be assured, however, that so long as women
swim, they will not repeat history by swathing themselves with yards of


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