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.
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.
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?