Circa 1916 Bathing Suit

I look at bathing suits from the first quarter of the 20th century and I get the idea that the true purpose of them was to make women look as unattractive as possible.  They were pretty worthless when it came to actual swimming, and the sex appeal is nonexistent.  Thank goodness for the 1920s and the knit wool suit, droopy and saggy as it was!

Bathing suits changed a lot in the 1910s.  At the beginning of the decade most of them still had sleeves.  They were most commonly made from woven wool.  The bloomers covered the knees.  By 1920 the sleeves were pretty much a thing of the past, sateen and twills cottons were becoming more popular as the fabric of bathing suits, and the bloomers skimmed the tops of the knees.

This suit shows both the old and the new.  There are no sleeves, and the fabric is cotton.  But the bloomers remain long, hitting just below the knees.  The top is like a dress, comes to the knees and is shapeless.

A common problem with collecting older bathing suits is that the pieces often get lost.  I’ve found just the bloomers, and just the dress, and belts are usually long gone.  But this suit is intact, including both a white and a black belt.   It even had a pair of black cotton stockings with it.

This suit was certainly homesewn, as shown by the poorly executed stitching.  But I love the attempt at interesting details in the form of the white cuffs with black buttonholes.

The bodice shaping is accomplished through the use of two big tucks and the belt.  Still, it is basically just a sack cinched in the middle.  Somehow I can see why this look did not satisfy the modern 1920s woman.



Filed under Proper Clothing, Sportswear, Summer Sports, Vintage Clothing

18 responses to “Circa 1916 Bathing Suit

  1. Your post brings to mind a favorite movie, Belles on Their Toes from 1952.
    The swim suit scene is interesting and foreign to those of us who grew up in the 70s.


  2. Wow! What a treasure! But, yes, I rather agree with you, suits back then weren’t friendly towards to female form, even Gibson I think had trouble making them work on his girls.


  3. I agree…this IS A TREASURE. Where did you find it…..I have only seen them in (very) old movies. Thanks for sharing.


  4. I like the white bound buttonhole on the belt. With the sewing like that, with the sloppy sewing on the armhole, I guess she was eager to get it done and get to the beach!


  5. Like you, I have often wondered just how anyone moved in these outfits once they got wet. I think that Patricia Campbell Warner make the point that “bathing suits” were really just for getting wet, and probably more for lounging on the beach. It is only when women really tried to swim that the shape had to change.


  6. Susan G.

    That Jantzen quote is really interesting. Anyone who has washed a wool cardigan by hand knows how heavy wet wool is — this wool knit suit, completely wet, must weigh several pounds — practically an invitation to drown! Old photos also show how revealing early bathing suits were when wet. No shelf bras for women, no athletic support for men…


  7. Christina

    I think the evolution of the bathing suit has more to do with the emancipation of women. Sea bathing for both sexes was promoted for health reasons in Britain back in the C18th. Women did swim in their “dresses” and they continued to swim when bathing costumes were worn. Help was at hand though to prevent drowning! This link has good information;

    The Gibson illustrations showing women wearing bathing costumes manages to evoke the idealised Gibson female form even if they do appear to be wearing corsets.


  8. Teresa

    Such a treasured piece of history. It’s so interesting to see how the bathing suit has evolved over the years.


  9. wow, you could totally wear that bathing suit as a cute romper out to lunch!


  10. Pingback: Bathing Suits, Circa 1872 | The Vintage Traveler

  11. Lizzie, what a beautiful bathing suit you found. Thanks for sharing that along with the details!


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