Late 19th Century Bathing Suits

As Labor Day weekend approaches, I’m sure many of you are planning to spend some time at the pool or beach. If you are, be glad that bathing suits have evolved into what they are today.

bathing suit, 1876-80 | bathing suit, 1878-80, both from Metropolitan Museum of Art

Both men and women used to wear wool bathing suits. Having examined many myself, let me tell you that this was not a soft wool. Unfortunately they could be made of scratchy flannel. Late nineteenth century suits were often navy blue, although suits of white, grey, and brown were worn too.

Remember, these suits weren’t really meant for actual swimming. Women could dunk themselves underwater and do a little frolicking, but women weren’t swimming laps.

bathing suit, c. 1885 | bathing suit, 1885, both from Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the late 1870s to the 1890s, bathing suits were made of two to three pieces — a dress over bloomers; a blouse, skirt, and trousers; or a unitard under a skirt. Many featured a belt at the waist. Some women wore slippers or bathing shoes.

Trousers provided modesty and greater mobility, as opposed to wearing full-length skirts in the water (which were worn for swimming prior to the 1870s). As trousers got shorter, women covered their legs with stockings.

Above you can see these bathing suits in use at the beach in Atlantic City. See the women in the water in their suits — far from the body-baring styles and modern fabrics today. Can you spot the woman trying to wring out her suit? The wool suits could get quite heavy when wet.

And below, check out similar styles worn by women at a photo tent on the beach. You can really get a good look at their trousers. It looks like the woman on the left is also wearing stockings.

Can you imagine how uncomfortable the bathing suits must have been, especially when wet?

Comments

  1. Ellie says:

    When I read Bells on their Toes (the sequel to Cheaper by the Dozen), the first chapter is about the daughters being frustrated that after their father’s death, they still have to wear really old fashioned swimming costumes instead of more modern suits. One daughter forgets or loses her suit and has to borrow her mother’s, and alters it to be much more stylish and modern and the other girls get angry at her for it. I’ve had to picture the whole scene in my head and I still don’t totally understand what they are talking about (there is some kind of under-layer and then a dress over it and Ernestine just wears the underlayer and shortens the pants of it) – but it would have taken place around 1930, so some years after these suits. Can we get some more fashion history of the bathing suit?

    • jacqueline says:

      Very interesting. I’ve never read the book. Sounds like she may have taken one of these suits and altered it to look like this or this. But sure, I’ll try to find some time to write about suits from about that period.

  2. KH_Tas says:

    I wonder how hard one of these would be to recreate. My sister has mentioned she would like to have one, and I’m generally the one who does the sewing in the family…

    • jacqueline says:

      There’s a late 1800s bathing suit pattern for sale here: http://www.evadress.com/Bath.html. I don’t know if it’s an easy pattern, but this is where I bought the pattern for my wedding dress. It didn’t come with any instructions, so this company’s patterns might not be great options for a novice sewer. But if you have a lot of experience, then maybe it’ll be painless.

  3. Happy to have discovered your blog featuring two of the things I adore most dearly- fashion + history!

  4. Kelly says:

    I’ve made an 1860’s wool bathing costume and have swam in Lake Huron in it, as have several of my friends.

    I have a number of posts on my blog, http://www.mackin-art.blogspot.com Search under “bathing” and several come up, complete with lots of photos.

    Love the images of originals that you posted.

  5. Clayton says:

    I’m a teacher, and I frequently assign Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, much of which is set at a beach resort in Grande Isle. I always wind up talking about bathing suits in the 1890’s, and showing pictures of them. Yes, hose or stockings seem to have been a part of the standard costume, as well as swimming shoes.

    Once, in a discussion of the clothing women wore in the 19th century, a male student asked if women shaved their legs. I said, “I don’t know for sure. I wasn’t there. But since their legs weren’t visible, there would have been no reason for women to shave.”

    The boys in the class were completely disgusted.

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