It was in the early 1800’s that people began to flock to the beaches for seaside amusement. With the introduction of railroads, ocean-side beaches became even more popular for sunny recreations. Along with this new outdoor pastime came the need for a stylish garment for the privileged lady of fashion. Here we will follow the path of the history of swimwear, which began long before the modern day bikini.
Although sea bathing was fashionable in the 18th century, it was considered proper to keep the skin white and untouched by the sun. This 1797 Gallery of Fashion print shows two ladies protected by face-shading bonnets, shawls and gloves as they approach a group of bathing machines, a sort of cabana on wheels. Ladies were known to sew weights into the hem of their smock-like bathing gowns to prevent the garment from floating up and showing their legs. Modesty ruled over fashion.
Sea-Side Walking DressThe early 1800s marked the beginning of a revolution in swimwear when women flocked to the beaches for seaside recreation. An 1810 fashion magazine describes the proper attire:
Fashionable Sea-Side Walking Dress – La Belle Assemblee Fashions, Sept 1810
“A gown of white French cambric, or pale pink muslin, with long sleeves, and antique cuffs of thin white muslin worn over trowsers of white French cambric, which are trimmed the same as the bottom of the dress. A figured short scarf of pale buff, with deep pale-green border, and rich silk tassels; with gloves of pale buff kid; and sandals of pale yellow, or white Morocco, complete this truly simple but becoming dress.”
In the mid-19th century bathing dresses covered most of the female figure. These garments were highlighted in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1864. the long bloomers exhibit the influence of Amelia Bloomer’s innovative ideas for women’s clothing. The ”turkish” pants and “paletot” dresses are made from a heavy flannel fabric which would surely weigh down the swimmer.
At ocean resorts where the water was very shallow near the beach, people undressed in little houses on wheels, which were drawn out into deep water by horses and hauled back to the shore when the bath was finished. At the larger resorts hundreds of these carts were seen in the water at a time. The broad wheels hardly made an impression on the firm, white sand of the beach.
The bathing machine allowed a modest Victorian woman to spend the day at the beach in complete privacy. After the horse would haul the cabana into the ocean, the 19th century woman would change from her layers of petticoats and dress into another layer of swimwear. Later a hood was added to the contraption to allow the female in a soaking wet flannel dress to emerge from the water unseen.
This group of young ladies above is enjoying a sunbath, dressed in the latest 1890s swimwear. Women typically dressed in black, knee-length, puffed-sleeve wool dresses, often featuring a sailor collar, and worn over bloomers or drawers trimmed with ribbons and bows. The bathing costume was typically accessorized with long black stockings, fancy lace-up bathing slippers, and fancy caps. Note the dotted stockings and wired sun hat worn by the young swimmer to the front of the photograph.
Fancy Beach Shoes
Bathing slippersIn the late 1800s and early 1900s, bathing suits were typically accessorized with long black stockings, lace-up bathing slippers, and fancy caps. Bathing slippers were very necessary, especially on stony beaches to protect from broken glass, oyster shells and pebbles that could cut or bruise the feet. These beach shoes were made of soles of twisted straw or felt with embroidered serge or crash tops and laces. They were often available at seaside places. To make a fashion statement, the wearer would add some embellishment such as a piece of scarlet braid turned into rosettes or bows. Ribbon was also added to felt shoes and crossed over the foot and ankle, then tied above it in a bow with short ends. The bathing shoes shown to the left are tied up with pink laces. Below are 1870s bathing slippers (shown right) made of white canvas trimmed with red braiding and bathing shoes (shown left) made of Turkish toweling bound with blue braid.
By the end of the 19th century people were flocking to the oceanside beaches for popular seaside activities such as swimming, surf bathing, and diving. The clumsy Victorian-style bathing costumes were becoming burdensome. A need for a new style bathing suits that retained modesty but was free enough to allow the young lady to engage in swimming was obvious.
By 1910 bathing suits no longer camouflaged the contours of the female body. The yards of fabric used in Victorian bathing skirts and bloomers were reduced to show a little more of the figure and to allow for exposure to the sun.
Up until the first decades of the 20th century, the only activity for women in the ocean involved jumping through the waves while holding on to a rope attached to an off-shore bouy. By 1915, women athletes started to share the actual sport of swimming with men and thus began to reduce the amount of heavy fabric used in their billowing swimsuits.
By the early 1920s women’s bathing suits were reduced to a one piece garment with a long top that covered shorts. Though matching stockings were still worn, vintage swimwear began to shrink and more and more flesh was exposed from the bottom of the trunks to the tops of the stockings. By the mid-1920s Vogue magazine was telling its readers that “the newest thing for the sea is a jersey bathing suit as near a maillot as the unwritten law will permit.”