Wow, was it hot this summer! Now that the weather has cooled off and fall is approaching, it is becoming easier to forget how hot and sultry it was. Though the steamy days curtailed many summer activities, they were great for swimming!
People have been swimming for centuries. Swimming has probably always been appreciated as a means of bathing and cooling off. Public swimming, however, particularly where women are concerned, has not always been considered a suitable activity. After a long hiatus from its popularity during Greek and Roman times (c.350 B.C.), public swimming once more became a common social activity at the end of the Victorian era.
The revival of public bathing stimulated the growth of a new fashion industry, that of the swimsuit. Over the past century, swimwear design has gone through rapid and remarkable changes. These changes are the result of the demands of our fashion-conscious culture combined with innovations in technology and an increasing interest in swimming as a sport. A good illustration of the evolution of swimwear design can be seen in four swimsuits that form part of the Morrison County Historical Society‘s (MCHS) textile collection.
The earliest dated swimsuit in the collection is a dark blue woman’s bathing costume. Made of finely woven wool, the costume consists of a knee-length short-sleeve dress and short baggy trousers, known as bloomers, that are gathered below the knees. Donated to MCHS in 1971 by the J. Kenneth Martin estate, the costume is believed to have been worn by Lottie Lee (Tanner) Martin (b. 1874), J. Kenneth Martin’s wife. J. Kenneth Martin was a prominent banker and businessman in Little Falls around the turn of the nineteenth century.
A popular choice for Victorian swimwear, the sailor-style design of this bathing costume was less constricting than the corseted styles of the mid-nineteenth century. By the late nineteenth century, the corset had disappeared and the length of skirts and sleeves had been considerably shortened. Even so, the remaining bloomers, full skirts, stockings and slippers must have made for difficult swimming.
The dark blue color of this bathing costume reflects the preference for dark colors in Victorian swimwear. Dark colored fabrics were favored because light colored fabrics became transparent when wet. It was not until the emergence of synthetic fabrics that the color range for swimsuits became virtually unlimited.
The only man’s swimming suit in the collection is a bright blue wool suit that was donated in 1980 by Stella Welker. This one-piece suit belonged to Stella’s husband, Fred, who wore it during the first part of the twentieth century.
Though tight-fitting, this union-style suit looks quite a bit more comfortable than the one worn by Lottie Martin. The design is simple, consisting of a tank top and shorts. The shorts are topped by a short overskirt and the tank top has a low scooped neckline and deep armhole openings. The only decorative detail is the double-stitched line that runs along the neck, arm and leg openings. Until swimming trunks became fashionable in the mid-1930s, men’s suits continued to include short-sleeve shirts or tank tops.1
Prior to the middle of the twentieth century, bathing suits were typically constructed of wool or cotton. Until rayon was introduced in the 1920s, the main available fabrics were linen, cotton, silk and wool. Wool was considered a suitably durable material for swimsuits because of its resistance to wear and tear and its resilience against dirt. According to an advertisement for a mohair bathing suit found in the 1908 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue, wool was an ideal fabric for bathing costumes as it “…sheds water well and does not cling to the figure”.
The two remaining suits in the collection were donated to MCHS in 1998 by the estate of William and Ethel Zimmerman. These one-piece, halter-top bathing suits were worn during the middle of the twentieth century by two of William and Ethel’s seven children, Bertha (b.1919) and Mabel (b.1926). The Zimmermans owned and operated a farm in Bellevue township.
Both of the Zimmerman swimsuits are brightly colored. One is made of a yellow loosely woven fabric and has a blue braid trim along the neckline. The other is constructed of a shiny red material that has a blue and white floral design. Both suits are made of Lastex, an elastic fiber made from Latex. Lastex yarns are often used to create fabrics like Spandex and are also used in foundation garments.
Bathing suit styles had changed drastically by the time Bertha and Mabel were young adults. By the 1920s, form-fitting suits had replaced the body-concealing outfits of the Victorian era. The new styles were both more comfortable to wear and more revealing. The colorful fabrics and gathers at the bust line of the Zimmerman suits reflect the increasingly feminine style of women‘s swimwear in the 1930s.
Swimwear design had become a major component of the fashion industry by the 1940s. As each new design was introduced, a catchy name or unique feature was used to market the product.2 The garment label found in the red Zimmerman swimsuit reads, “Swimaway always in the Lead”, “Smartly Designed For Perfect Fit”. The yellow Zimmerman swimsuit sports a label highlighting its uniquely designed “floating” bra. Both are a far cry from the humble, yet charming label found in Lottie (Tanner) Martin’s swimsuit, which reads “Watersprite”.
Today’s swimwear fashion ranges from baggy t-shirts and shorts to string bikinis. Overall, the sizes of swimsuits have shrunk to the point that some are barely there. It certainly makes one wonder what’s in store for the future. Will we return to heavy, body-concealing dresses and tank suits or will nude bathing become all the rage? Your guess is as good as mine!
Ann Marie Johnson
Copyright 2001, Morrison County Historical Society
1 Rowland-Warne, L. Costume. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
2 DeVries, Malvina. In the Swim: The Evolution of the 20th Century Bathing Suit. www.retroactive.com/mar98/swimsuit.html.