When I first started this blog, I was an unemployed costumer attempting to create period gowns and costumes with very limited means. Although now employed, I still try to be as thrifty as possible. I am still "The Broke Costumer"!

In addition to posts about the outfits I make on a budget, this blog includes short research articles on fashion, history, accessories, styles, or whatever interests me at the moment.

I hope you enjoy my journey into the land of inexpensive costuming and short articles.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Bathing Suits through History (and a special memory)

 "By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea!  You and me, you and me, oh how happy we'll be!
When each wave comes a-rolling in, We will duck or swim, And we'll float 'n fool around the water.
Over and under, and then up for air, Pa is rich, Ma is rich, so now what do we care?
I love to be beside your side, beside the sea, Beside the seaside, by the beautiful sea!"
From the musical "For Me and My Gal"    (Harold Atteridge / Harry Carroll) (1914)

In the Beginning
Our story begins in the 4th century when the Villa Roma de Casale in Sicily was decorated with the first known representation of women possibly wearing bathing suits.
The bath houses of ancient Greece and Rome were not places of modesty -- they were places to bathe. The more skin you showed, the cleaner you got. Men and women each had their own spaces. Women in these times, from about 200 B.C. to 500 A.D., most likely were either completely nude or wore a very small bathing suit consisting of a bandeaulike top and small bottoms. Drawings from these ancient civilizations depict women wearing these bikinis, which are very similar to those worn by women today. The bath houses of ancient times gave way to the Dark Ages, when public bathing disappeared for hundreds of years.  Source
17th Century
Celia Fiennes gave a detailed description of the standard ladies' bathing costume in 1687:
    "The Ladyes go into the bath with Garments made of a fine yellow canvas, which is stiff and made large with great sleeves like a parson’s gown; the water fills it up so that it is borne off that your shape is not seen, it does not cling close as other linning, which Lookes sadly in the poorer sort that go in their own linning. The Gentlemen have drawers and wastcoates of the same sort of canvas, this is the best linning, for the bath water will Change any other yellow."   source-wikipedia
 18th Century
The Bath Corporation official bathing dress code of 1737 prescribed, for women:  No Female person shall at any time hereafter go into a Bath or Baths within this City by day or by night without a decent Shift on their bodies.

The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker was published in 1771 and its description of ladies’ bathing costume reads:  "The ladies wear jackets and petticoats of brown linen, with chip hats, in which they fix their handkerchiefs to wipe the sweat from their faces; but, truly, whether it is owing to the steam that surrounds them, or the heat of the water, or the nature of the dress, or to all these causes together, they look so flushed, and so frightful, that I always turn my eyes another way."

During the 18th century, spas where men and women engaged in public bathing began appearing in France and England. Men and women still bathed infrequently however and the typical "swim" was a brief dip in the water with ladies on one side of the beach and men on the other. One of the earliest bathing suits during this time may have possibly been an old smock resembling a kind of "bathing gown." Source       Bathing gowns,” as they were referred to, in the late 18th century, were used for just that, public bathing, a standard mode of hygiene at the time. In fact, “bathing machines,” four-wheeled carriages that would be rolled out into the water and designed for the bather’s utmost modesty, were popular accessories to the bathing gown.   "Modesty prevailed over form and function. Women took to the water in long dresses made from fabric that wouldn’t become transparent when submerged. To prevent the garments from floating up to expose any precious calf (or beyond, heaven forbid), some women are thought to have sewn lead weights into the hem to keep the gowns down" Source

Bathing Machines
"The bathing machine was a necessity of sea-side etiquette in the 19th century. The use of this device was more strictly enforced for women’s modesty.
The men had the best of it; they were allowed to bathe in drawers, and could plunge off one of the small boats that often patrolled along the front of the beach. Meanwhile, the machines and bathing-places for women were set far apart from those reserved for men, to guarantee that the modest woman in her bathing costume would not be seen by the opposite sex.
Below, Regency Era, Bathing at Brighton
The bathing machine was like a sentry-box on wheels; it was about six feet in length and width, and about eight feet high, with a peaked roof.  Some had solid wooden walls; others had canvas walls over a wooden frame. It had a door behind and in front, and had to be reached by a step-ladder.  Inside the bathing machine consisted of a bench, a damp flannel gown, and two towels. The bathing machine was wheeled or slid down into the water; some were pulled in and out of the surf by a pair of horses with a driver and others by human power.
The female bather would, in the privacy of the machine, change into her bathing dress, placing her street garments into a raised compartment where the clothing would remain dry.  After changing, the machine was lowered to the edge of the water.  The bather then entered the surf by the front door, descending by another step-ladder like the one behind; and if she could not swim, the attendant tied the bather’s waist with a strong cord, attaching the shore end to the machine. Then she has splashed for ten minutes or a quarter of an hour, the shapeless bathing dress that covered her is all bedraggled; her hair is tangled and matted. the attendant hauls her in; thus completing her sea-side experience".  Paraphrased From

 19th Century

 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 probably weigh down the swimmer

From the fantastic FIDM blog, we find this beautiful 1875 bathing costume.  Read about this suit and see additional photos here

In part, the blog reads:  (This suit) wasn't intended to be worn for vigorous lap swimming or surfing. In the nineteenth century, swimming or "taking the waters" meant simply submerging oneself in water, either at a medicinal hot spring or in the ocean. As swimming was conceptualized as a kind of medicine, bathing garments were considered functional rather than fashionable. Women's swimwear was intended to keep the body warm in often cold waters, to protect against sunburn and to maintain modesty through full-body coverage. To complete the look, a nineteenth century swimmer would have also worn a head covering, stockings, flat soled beach shoes and possibly carried a parasol.

Below left.  Lady's plaid wool bathing costume 1860s. Whitaker auction
Below right. Wool suit 1870s metmuseum,org


20th Century

 During the early 1900s, people flocked to ocean side beaches for popular seaside activities as swimming, surf bathing, and diving. The only activity for women in the ocean involved jumping through the waves while holding onto a rope attached to an off-shore buoy. Their clumsy Victorian and Edwardian style bathing suits were often quite burdensome. Women typically dressed in black, knee-length, puffed-sleeve wool dresses, often featuring a sailor collar, and worn over bloomers trimmed with ribbons and bows. The bathing suit was accessorized with long black stockings, lace-up bathing slippers, and fancy caps.   Photo-Library of Congress Source

Left:   Coney Island, New York 1904

 Right 1902  Photo
by Fritz W. Guerin


Below 1905 dry plate glass negative, Detroit Publishing Company
In 1907, a scandal erupted when Australian swimmer, Annette Kellerman, the first woman to swim across the English Channel, was arrested for indecent exposure in Boston for wearing a form-fitting, one-piece suit, with a high neck, knee-length shorts, and short sleeves.  Kellerman counters, “I can’t swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothesline.” A judge agrees that she needs a suit that offers “unrestricted movement when swimming.” She did, however, add black tights to her suit. Her form-fitting suit paved the way for a new kind of one-piece, and over the next couple decades, as swimming became an even more popular leisure-time activity, beach goers saw more arms, legs, and necks than ever before.   Annette above and left source
Annette also starred in a series of silent films showcasing her swimming talent between 1909 to 1924, the most notable being "Neptune's Daughter" in 1914.  She did her own stunts and was injured a few times during filming.For a real treat, watch her movie clips HERE

In 1952, Esther Williams starred as Annette in the movie "Million Dollar Mermaid", based on her life story.

You are viewing an unusual image of Mack Sennett's bathing beauties posed on automobile, Washington, D.C., area. It was taken around 1919   Source   

In the early 1920s, swimsuits were causing quite a stir.   Many beaches had decency laws, and women were being arrested!  "As swimwear  became shorter, women had to be on the lookout for the beach police who patrolled the area with measuring tape in hand. These skin censors would measure the distance between the bottom of a woman’s bathing suit and her knee. Too much bare skin and that could result in a hefty $10 fine or even being hauled off to jail! Most of these modesty rules were lifted by the mid twenties- too many women simply didn’t care to follow them and far to many men enjoyed the new view."source 
"As swimming for recreation came into vogue in the 1920s, makers of swimwear had to adapt and make swimwear, well, for swimming. Jantzen revolutionized swimwear material with a stretchy ribbed jersey that fit more snug than regular jersey and certainly more comfortable than thick wool. This made it easier to swim, but it also showed off more of a woman’s curves. Necklines dropped to deep boat necks or V necks. Arm holes grew bigger to to making real swimming easier. Colors were as vibrant as other 20s sportswear- red, blue, black, gray and kelly green with contrasting stripes. An optional white rubber belt helped keep the two piece suit from floating up in the water"      1923- Ready for the Beach (left)

 Below, two women being arrested for indecent exposure in 1922, Chicago.

In the second half of the 1920s, rules relaxed.  So much so, that a new craze began.   Swimsuit beauty contests. Here is a You Tube Video  of an actual contest!


The silhouette of the 1930s swimsuit took-on direct inspiration from men's suits (which were still one pieces.) Men were encouraged to build a muscular yet lean sportsman’s bodies. Women too needed to slim down into an athletic body that was tall,  lean  and curvy up top to flatter the latest bias cut dresses. Swimsuits were cut to show off more leg and more back skin than ever before. The thin straps also made the shoulders appear broader and more athletic. It became what we know as the swimsuit today.  link          

                                                                      1940s - 50s
The following lady is very special to me.   Here is her story and our story.

Florence May Chadwick  was born November 9, 1918 in San Diego, California, and was known for long-distance open water swimming. She was the first woman to swim the English Channel in both directions, setting a time record each time. She was also the first woman to swim the Catalina Channel, the Straits of Gibraltar, the Bospours and the Dardanelles.   Starting at age eleven she competed in rough water swims, winning an annual 2.5-mile race in the ocean off La Jolla 10 times in 18 years. She swam in Southern California ocean races as an amateur for several decades, but had her heart set on swimming the English Channel, which she completed on October 12, 1950, at the age of 31, from France to England in 13 hours and 20 minutes, breaking the then-current women's record. One year later, Chadwick crossed the English Channel again, from England to France this time, in 16 hours and 22 minutes, thus making her the first woman to swim the English Channel in both directions, and setting a record for the England-France journey. She ultimately swam the Channel four times.    Source:Wiki
She gave product endorsements and served for many years as the spokesperson for Catalina Swimwear. She taught swimming at a number of venues. Turning professional in 1945, she joined former teammate, Esther Williams and appeared in the movie, "Bathing Beauty".  She worked with Esther Williams to design movie swimming sequences.

After traveling and living in the Eastern United States where she opened several swim schools, in 1967, she move back to San Diego to take care of her mother.  

This is where I come in!   After she had been back in San Diego for awhile she still loved teaching, and one summer, my brother and I were very fortunate to become her students in my godmother's swimming pool.  I still remember learning the breaststroke, butterfly, backstroke and others from her, starting in the shallow end and making our way to the edge of the deep end.  I can still hear her voice, calling out "Stroke!"   We also learned to dive (or belly flop).   Here are a few photos from my scrapbook.
Then she opened a swimming school in Mission Valley. My brother and I were there for a newspaper story when she first opened it.   I think we only went there twice, as the pool was not heated, and I stood shivering in the shallow end and refused to go in while she worked with my brother.  Our newspaper article.
After only a few months of teaching swimming there, she decided to retire. She had been interested in the stock market for a while, and became a stockbroker.   We would exchange Christmas cards, and I saw her a few times while visiting with my mother.  She passed away in 1995 from Leukemia.



  1. What a sweet story to end this with.

  2. What an absolutely fantastic read. I love things like these. You just cant help it to want to high-five all those girls of the roaring 20's They did so much for the girls of today.

  3. Great article! Enjoyed reading it.