Late Victorian Bathing Costume

The great bulk of my collection dates after 1915, but I’m slowly educating myself about earlier sportswear, and I’ve begun to acquire a few pieces.  This late nineteenth century bathing suit is my latest.  I bought this one mainly because most of the ones I’ve looked at over the past year are black, so a different color was a plus.  I’ll probably eventually buy a black one, if I find one with great design that is in good condition.

Condition is a major problem with antique bathing suits, as they were for the most part, made from wool.  Besides the fact that moths love them, they were exposed to salt water and who knows what else.  So while this suit photographs and displays well, it has the sort of issues one might expect from a well-used garment that is around 120 years old. In this case, I decided I could live with more damage than I would on a more common garment.

The bathing suit is made up of two pieces, the blouse and bloomers combination, and a matching skirt. This was pretty much the makeup of women’s bathing suits until the second decade of the twentieth century, when the shrunken bloomers were covered by a skirt that was attached to the top.  From there the bathing suit kept getting smaller, and smaller and…

The lighter color tie is attached at the shoulders.  It covers a placket, under which is a row of buttons.

The modesty panel attaches to the collar with buttons on one side, and is permanently attached on the other.

The braid, which is green, was sewn on by machine, and looks to be professionally done.

The braid also decorated the sleeves, the waistband, and the hem of the skirt.  The weight of it helped to keep the skirt from riding or blowing up, thus saving the wearer from extreme embarrassment.

The damage is much more apparent on the back.  There are a number of moth holes, and the waist band is torn.  I’m guessing that the owner had gained a bit of weight, and the band simply ripped from the stress.  The buttons are for attaching the skirt.

Note the fullness below the waistband, which is the top of the bloomers.  I’ll get back to that in a minute.

This bathing suit came with a bit of a mystery attached – an extra piece that was originally part of the garment. It is a slice cut from the skirt. At some point the suit was altered to make the back of the skirt less full.  And while there is only one piece, there is evidence that two pieces were cut out.

This is the inside of the skirt, showing where I think the piece was removed. The most obvious sign is that a different color of thread was used.  On the left you can see that the thread matches the fabric, but the newer seam is stitched in white.  On the front, the original seams are so perfectly matched that it is hard to see them.  On the two new seams, the braid is off somewhat.

There is also white stitching where the skirt is gathered into the waistband.  So the back of the skirt had quite a bit of fullness removed.  But why? It probably has to do with changing fashion.

The image above is from 1898, from The Glass of Fashion. Even though a garment like a bathing suit might not be considered “fashion”, you can see the trends of an era in the shape and the details. Even though this is a dress, it has a lot in common with my bathing costume, with the gored skirt having a flat front and a full back.  The bodice is also similar with the pleats and gathers attached to a yoke. And don’t forget the puffed sleeves.

The bathing suit above is from an 1899 Delineator magazine. You can see how similar this one is to mine, with the tie, sailor collar, puffed sleeves and band at the hem.  This basic style remained popular over the next fifteen or so years, with gradual changes being made to reflect changing fashion.  The bodice became droopy in front, the gathers disappeared and smooth, full gores replaced them.

In period illustrations, bathing costumes are frequently pictured in beautiful colors, but photographs from the same time tell a different story.  The overwhelming majority of bathing suits for women were dark, either black or navy.

There are a few other problems with my suit.  Someone shortened the waist by about three quarters of an inch by making a tuck right above the waist.  I haven’t decided if I’ll remove it, but I probably will just leave it.  Most of the original buttons have been replaced, but buttons of this era are easy to find so I’ll probably replace the newer ones. The elastic in the legs of the bloomers has completely lost its stretch.  I’ll probably just leave it.

It was fun analyzing this piece.  Unfortunately, I know nothing at all about who the original owner was, but I do know she had a very appealing bathing costume.


Filed under Collecting, Sportswear, Summer Sports, Vintage Clothing

14 responses to “Late Victorian Bathing Costume

  1. That is an amazing piece of fashion history. Do you think it was sewn by the original owner or was bought off the rack. I enjoy reading about your finds and research. Terri


  2. fascinating, especially the similarities between the dress and the bathing garment. We don’t currently have any post-war bathing suits at the shop where I work, or I’d be comparing those to contemporaneous dresses.


  3. What undergarments did they wear with their bathing costumes? It’s hard enough to imagine wearing a sopping wet wool anything, but even more a costume with pleats/gathers/collar/etc.! And the logistics of drying costume + undergarments — there goes half the vacation. Is that an elasticized cuff? When was by-the-yard elastic invented?


    • I’m afraid I can’t completely answer your questions. I’ve read of bathers wearing a cotton chemise underneath, and even a corset! The bottom of the bloomers has elastic in a casing, but the more I look at it, I’m not sure it was original. It is very possible there was a ruffled cuff like on the sleeves. Elastic had been around a long time, since the middle of the 19th century.


  4. AS the advertisement used to caption – “you’ve come a long way baby”! Was this outfit used for genteel dipping / giggling and flirting – “i will show you my ankle”?! POOR THINGS! Certainly one for the collection!


  5. What a great find, and the alteration is very interesting. I can imagine that if you were wearing this suit–or especially a similar one in black wool, on a hot day–getting into the water felt amazing!


  6. I really love the braid trimming–so much work! Those lovely swirls where the braid changes direction are a great idea.


  7. Christina

    I think the main fabric of the bathing suit may have been dyed. I can see on the photo of the lower sleeve the thread looks exactly the same tint as the fabric. So I wonder if your bathing suit might have been white? As it is it’s an unusual colour. In addition to dark blue and black colours of bathing suits from the late Victoria period could be white, ecru, grey, red and green. This is a great reference;


  8. Wow! Even though I know this is in fact a bathing costume, and I know this is what women had to endure in order to be on the beaches, but I still can’t help but think “What a darling dress!”

    What a wonderful piece to have in your collection, even despite the issues.


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