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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jennifer McQuiston enjoys the beach, even if she doesn’t enjoy the suits. Her first book, What Happens in Scotland, will be published by Avon February 26, 2013.



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31 Comments on “Not so Fun in the Sun: A History of Women’s Swimsuits
  1. *this Duchess would always rather be able to swim to shore than look cute while drowning*
    Excellent point, Duchess Jennifer! I’m alwasy amazed at how utterly inconvenient women’s clothing was! I cannot fathom strolling along the boardwalk, much less swimming, in a corset and yards of fabric! On the other hand, I am all in favor of suits these days having MORE fabric. I am off the ‘cover it all up’ variety. But hey, if you look good in a bikini, go for it!

  2. Cute over competent = a recipe for disaster, this Duchess always says! There was actually a ship disaster in 1904 in one of the U.S. harbors (New York, I think?) that resulted in mainly women drowning, because it was close enough to shore the men could make it to safety. Those skirts were the death of many a woman.

  3. I will need to save this post as I run into this issue in a manuscript I’m working on. My heroine, a 19th century Japanese immigrant to the U.S., was a diving girl in Japan before she left the country. Given that this position required her to be able to free dive pretty well and hold her breath for between 1-2 minutes, her work clothing would have been a bit inappropriate by 19th century American standards.

  4. I too wear the skirted tankini and I often wish other women my own age (clearly NOT Duchesses) would do the same. I’m always amazed with the pre-teens wear skirts and sun shirts while women who’ve passed the I-can-eat-everything-and-still-stay-skinny-stage don’t.
    My kids know that my all-time favorite holiday is Labor Day because the pool closes and my bathing suits are put away!

  5. Go Annette Kellerman! Arrested for audacity. Hrmph. I am the skirted tankini type also. I cannot imagine the wool. The wool! And the idea of a bathing machine shocked me when I first read about it. I was like, “No way!” This is why I adore history though. So interesting. Thank you for this post, Duchess Jennifer.

  6. I hate when it comes time for bathing suit buying. I’m thinking I might like to go back to those sea bath times and twenty yards of wool instead. :)

    Jimmie Joe Johnson: Manwhore – Redneck romance at its best!
    Kensington Publishing

    • It does seem as though with modern fabric technology, we should be able to come up with a safe, lightweight fabric that doesn’t add bulk when wet… the heroine in the book is facing some dilemmas about what to wear so the hero doesn’t see her, let me tell you!

  7. Having been in the water around England, I have a better opinion of wool, but I agree. Kudos to Annette. Wonderful post. Let me know when you next visit St. John, I live on St. Thomas.

  8. I like the 50’s swimsuits. Some coverage, some exposure — they were balanced. We’ve been headed towards nothing but a yard of floss ever since. Ugh! Desire is about concealing as much if not more than it is about revealing.

  9. For me, the more fabric, the better. But not wet wool. That sounds terrible.

    My current suit is a several-sizes-too-big tankini.

  10. Oh, I can’t even imagine how dreadful that must have been to be trapped beneath layers of sandy, gritty wool – and with weights along the hem no less!! It’s incredible to think of bathing suits being that massive and for so long when we are used to a world of bikinis and thongs. Thank you for that fascinating article :)

  11. I haven’t swam since I was a preteen, but like you, I opt for the shirt-and-shorts-kini, LOL. I do love the swimsuits from the 40s and 50s, though I have been tempted to sew up my own version of a 1900s bathing costume to see what it’s like to swim all covered up.

    • Evangeline, if you do sew that, please send us a pic! I also love those glamerous 40s and 50s suits, but many of them were corseted, which makes me wonder how practical they were for actual swimming. Amazing to think of all the opportunities now (Olympics, etc) and how far women have come and how fast… first female swimmers were admitted to the Olympics in 1912, I think, only a few years after Annette Kellerman made her bare legs statement!

  12. Pingback: Jennifer McQuiston | Historical Romance Author | Not So Fun in the Sun: A History of Women’s Swimsuits

  13. I have come to terms with the suits and usually wear a 2 piece, sometimes a bikini with modest bottom. And I know I don’t rock it. It’s the landscaping that drives me bonkers. It’s almost worth risking death by saturated sheep to avoid all of the shaving. Ugh.

  14. I would definitely cover up a lot more. I live in sunny, southwest Florida and can enjoy the beach all year. However, when we go, I tend to stay in my shorts and huddle under the umbrella and read. Too much sun isn’t good for the skin. However, wouldn’t it be nice if there was an empire waist type bathing suit with a cute and full skirt that came to about mid-thigh? If it was made well, it would be really cute….I hope! :-)

    I don’t know how women were able to wear those WOOL suits back then! I itch just thinking about it!

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