Bathing Suit – Circa 1870

I bet I’m like most collectors in that I greatly prefer to shop in person, rather than online.  With the item right in front of you it is much easier to assess the flaws and feel the textile. But in this world, shopping online is pretty much necessary when looking for rarer items. That’s why I continue to buy stuff I’ve seen only in photos.

Most of the time when the item arrives, it is exactly what I expected. The trick is to buy only from those who know their business, and who truthfully describe their items. I’ve found that most professional vintage dealers do these things.

I recently bought a few things from an auction house that holds the auctions live with the option to bid online. Before even bidding, I knew that the set above was not as the dealer described it. It was listed as a 1900 gym suit. Being made from cotton in in that great indigo blue, I knew this was actually a bathing suit. And from the long pants and sleeves, I knew it was older than 1900.

My starting place was to look through all the books I have that picture Victorian clothing. Most useful was a book from Dover, Victorian Fashions and Costumes from Harper’s Bazar – 1867 – 1898. While this book did not have a suit very similar to mine, I quickly saw that long trousers and sleeves were passé  by 1876. I then went to the marvelous online resource, Hearth, in which Cornell has digitized women’s magazines, including Harper’s Bazar.

The closest bathing suit I found was the one I’ve paired above, from 1870. That year all the bathing pants were long trousers, but you can see the edge of a short sleeved version. By 1871, all the bathing suits had short sleeves. By 1875 most had pants that came to the middle of the calf.  The sleeve continued to shrink so that by 1880 they were just a ruffle at the shoulder, and several years later the suits were sleeveless.  The pants continued to shorten as well, to just below the knee.

Someone ought to publish just the bathing suit fashion plates from Victorian and Edwardian publications. Put in chronological order, the shrinkage of the bathing suit over the period would become very obvious.

What else can I say about this piece? First, it was most likely made at home using a sewing machine, though I have found ads for ready-made bathing suits as early as 1870. The sleeves are made in two pieces, as one might expect with a nineteenth century piece.

The buttonholes are hand-stitched. The color of thread used is the same as was in the bobbin of the machine – a light brown.

If you look carefully at this button, you will detect a problem.  This is a plastic button,; a modern replacement. This is an issue commonly seen in items that are this old. The problem is that it was not disclosed in the item description.

The other buttons, the ones on the top piece, are glass. Are they original to the piece? I can’t say for sure, but if they are, they have all been resewn with modern thread. But one of them on the pants retains the light brown thread identical to that of the bobbin, which puts in a good word for the rest of the glass buttons. Thoughts?

The pants are interesting. The waistband is yoked in exactly the same way as pants from the 1930s. These button on both sides, much like the sailor pants of midshipmen.

The white trim is a purchased twill, which also forms the belt loops.

Overall, I’m pleased with this piece. It is a very early bathing suit, the earliest one I’ve ever seen on the market. I do prefer that all parts of an item be original, but a few plastic buttons aren’t worth getting too upset about. I just wish I had known before bidding.


Filed under Sportswear, Summer Sports

22 responses to “Bathing Suit – Circa 1870

  1. It’s crucial to one’s reputation as a trusted seller to disclose everything. An auction house has the unenviable task of deciding whether to take the owner’s word or do the research themselves. Given the not insignificant buyer’s premium, and the often much-higher-than-their-cost shipping fees, I’d argue that they owe it to potential buyers to vet and verify all information provided to them. An auction at a reputable house is rarely a bargain hunt and an auction house is generally considered a small step below a museum as far as depth and breadth of knowledge of the items they deal in. Then again, we’ve seen some rather odd things at museums, haven’t we? I recall a bodice on backward, for example.


  2. As an online seller who’s suddenly buying/selling in significantly larger volume, I can attest that it is very hard to spot and disclose everything, even though I try hard. I find that the best time to notice is when photographing. Somehow stains, holes and repairs are much more obvious in a photo, even when standing right next to an item I’ve already handled multiple times. However, I am not selling anything as old, valuable or unusual as your bathing costume. And I don’t use an auction format. There’s often quite a bit of back and forth, questions answered and more photos provided with my prospective buyers. I would also be disappointed that there is a plastic replacement button that wasn’t disclosed (while glass may be hard to find, what about at least MOP??). But — still a very cool item for your collection, as you say.


  3. jacq staubs

    Were the they actually “permitted” to get wet ? As up tight and rigid as the rules were for exposure? Interesting and puzzling .


  4. I think a lot of sellers, unless they are truly experts, are pretty clueless about buttons, the difference between plastic, bakelite, MOP and glass, and the ramifications vis a vis age and condition. Not to make excuses for the auction house, it is after all their job to vet the things they sell, but buttons and kinds of thread are often overlooked due to lack of knowledge.
    bonnie in provence


  5. Amanda Legare

    Great information, as usual Lizzie. That must have been so uncomfortable for swimming.


  6. Vicky Loebel

    What a gorgeous bathing suit! And how utterly, utterly impractical to go even wading in. It’s no wonder the sleeves and pants legs shrank rapidly.


  7. What a find! Congratulations; it’s a joy to see that suit. I was interested in your observation that sleeveless bathing suits appeared in the 1870s and 1880s; sleeveless evening gowns seem to have made the same journey, appearing in the 1870s, worn in the 1880s (with the little ruffle) and disappearing again in the 1890s. (But I don’t think it was about tan lines, more about finding “new bits” of flesh to reveal….) I haven’t researched this in detail — just referred to “Victorian Fashions and Costumes from Harper’s Bazar – 1867 – 1898” for a refresher.


  8. Another wonderful find that also showcases your expert skill and eye!! Congrats on such a rare addition to your collection!


  9. Pingback: Arts and Crafts Meets 1930s in One Lovely Dress | The Vintage Traveler

  10. alice p. cannon

    Thanks for this article. It helped me place a photo of my great-grandparents in a studio tintype wearing bathing suits. I believe the long sleeves help to date the photo to the 1870’s.


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