I have a lot to say about this superb 1920s bathing suit, but I’ll try to keep my enthusiasm for it under control somewhat. I’ll start by saying a few things about collecting.
Most guides to collecting anything give the same advice to beginning collectors: Buy the very best that you can afford. After thirty-five years of collecting this or that, I can attest to the value of the statement. With a few years of experience of looking at objects, it is always the cream that is most appealing. The reason many collectors become sellers is to sell off the lesser quality items in their collections in order to afford the best examples.
From the moment I first saw the photos of this 1920s bathing suit on the Instagram of SmallEarthVintage, I knew this was an object I had to add to my collection. Even though I already had two knit bathing suits from the early to mid 1920s, this one was just so much better with those great Art Deco designs that I began looking through my collection to see what I could sell in order to buy this one from Karen. In the end, I did not have to sell a kidney, nor even a lesser piece that I already owned, as she was running a sale that put the piece within my budget.
The Art Deco designs are not knit into the fabric, but are embroidered over the black wool knit. There is quite a bit of sheen to the embroidery which leads me to think that it is silk. It makes me wonder how this would have stood up to repeated dunkings in water, but because of the excellent condition of the wool, I suspect this suit spent much more time on a beach blanket than in the ocean. These are often found completely stretched out of the original shape due to heavy wearing.
I got help in pinning down a date for this piece from a great booklet by historian Claudia Kidwell, Women’s Bathing and Swimming Costume in the United States. The booklet was published in 1968 by the Smithsonian, for which Kidwell worked. Remarkably, the entire text of this excellent source is available online, or it can be downloaded free of charge from Amazon.
One thing that Kidwell points out is that until the necklines began to scoop deeply, even knit suits had to have a button at one shoulder in order to put it on. Many places had a rule that the scoop of the neck could not be lower than a line drawn across the chest from armpit to armpit. As the Twenties progressed, many of these rules were either abolished, or more likely, simply ignored. By the late 1920s a button was no longer required at the shoulder as the neck opening was large enough to fit over the wearer’s body. My suit does have a rather high neckline, and thus, the needed button.
Another hint as to the age is the presence of an overskirt, with the trunks peeking out about two inches beneath it. This skirt was all that was left of the old bathing dress of the previous decades. And by the end of the 1920s, it would be gone as well.
By looking at hundreds of photos of swimmers in their suits and after seeing hundreds of existing suits for sale , I can safely say that the majority of knit swimming and bathing suits from the late 1910s and the 1920s were either a plain black, or black with a colored stripe. It is the geometric design of this suit that separates it from the multitude of plain black suits. Although the Art Deco movement received its name in 1925 after the L’Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes fair held in Paris, the designs were already in use and gaining favor by the early 1920s. The original owner of this suit must have been a very modern woman.
So, what is the date of this suit? There’s no way to know with 100 percent certainty without finding an ad or a catalog, but my best guess is between 1923 and 1925. After that time both the skirt and the trunks got shorter, the scoop neck got lower, and the button would have disappeared.
Another interesting thing about this suit is that it does have a label. It is hard to read, but it is “Eff-N-Dee”. I’d never heard of this brand, but Karen had discovered that it was the label of a knitwear company in Cleveland, Ohio, the Friedman-Devay Knitting Company. Having the name of the firm is a good starting place for finding information, but this one has been a bit elusive. I do know that the owners were S.A. Devay and W.A. Freidman and that the company produced knits for the entire family. The first reference I found to the company was dated 1915.
One of the most interesting things I found was a listing of knit goods manufacturers in the city of Cleveland in 1916. I was surprised to see that there were twenty-six makers of knits in Cleveland. Someone who lives in that area needs to do a study.
Thanks to Karen at Small Earth Vintage for the use of her photographs.