Until the mid 1880’s, “bathing” was considered to be almost exclusively therapeutic. Even later, when it became a more recreational exercise, women mostly just dipped in and then out of the water, keeping to one side, while men segregated themselves on the other. The railway made the beaches more accessible to the general public, and gradually changes came about.
At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the twentieth, mixed bathing was still frowned upon, and a contraption with wheels, designed to aid modesty, was seen on the beaches. The lady bather, still wearing most of her undergarments, and clad in a longish bathing dress, most often made of wool, or later, heavy cotton, accessorized with long black wool stockings and a cotton frilled cap covering her hair, was expected to go into and then out of the bathing machine, directly into the water, without exciting any more attention than was strictly necessary! This kind of false modesty didn’t last long, and magazines of the day often poked fun at the whole idea with their “before and after” cartoons.
Men’s suits of the time were similarly modest, made of wool and showed only lower arm and leg. Knit type tops and pants gave way to daring one piece suits with progressively barer tops. For both sexes, these woolen suits of course became very heavy in water. Jantzen’s first men’s bathing suit weighed 9lbs when wet! Women sewed weights in their suit skirts to keep them from floating up and exposing the bloomers underneath! Men didn’t go “topless” in the water until 1937. In 1947, the Jantzen company hired actor James Garner (pictured left) to model a line of popular “savage swim trunks”…daring indeed!
For women, suits became more lightweight as the 1920’s progressed, and in the 1930’s, styles became more streamlined and suited to swimming. Sailor styles, naturally, were popular. In 1934 a suit, which hugged the body, and allowed adjustable straps to be dropped for sun tanning, was introduced. In the 1940’s, rayon, as well as several other synthetic fabrics, which came about as a result of WW11worked well for swim suit fabrics, and two-piece suits were considered chic. Simultaneously in 1946, two French designers introduced the bikini. At the same time in California, glamorous styles with plunging necklines, bare midriffs and gold lame made their debut. Hollywood had a real influence, easily seen in movies of that era.
With less fabric in modern suits, the beach cover-up became popular and a source of its’ own style in the 1950’s. Another popular accessory was the bathing cap. Made of rubber, with flowers and rubber ribbons etc, they added to the stylish swimmer’s look, as well as doing their best to keep the hair dry. As I can attest, they didn’t do that job very well if you wanted to actively swim!
In the 1960s and since then, Lycra and Spandex have allowed for shaping and molding of the modern suit. The 60’s suits, as with everything else in the decade, showed innovative styles. Peek-a-boo fabrics and fishnet styling left some small amount to the imagination!
In the 21st century, whole families spend a day at the beach with perfect aplomb, wearing any style they choose, more concerned about the SPF factor of their sunscreen than they are about style…and that’s as it should be.
The scope of what I have described above was the change seen between my Grandmother’s experience and my own. Vive la difference! … and have fun in the water this summer no matter what you wear!
–Margaret Mills is the commentator and co-ordinator of the Historic Fashion Review for the Costume Museum of Canada. This article was originally published in the Headingley Times.