How to Make a Quick and Easy 1920s Bathing Suit

In honor of the delightful 1920s events we’ve had this Summer, including the Lake Tahoe Gatsby coming up this weekend, I want to share with you a fun little project you can do in an afternoon.

First, though, I’d like to say that Debbie, of VintageDancer, challenged me to make a 1920s swimsuit for this weekend, so we can both go to the Gatsby as bathing beauties.  I was scared to death of constructing one, though, because I really had no idea how to do it.

Enter the research …..
(images sourced from around the web, many from

A little bit of reading also revealed that suits were made out of wool knit.  Yikes.  However, they were *also* made out of cotton knit, which I decided to go with for a couple reasons: one, it’s far more comfortable; two, it’s easier to find; three, when it gets wet it won’t be so saggy and weigh as much as wool.

Now to get crafting…

What you will need:

  • A pair of short, tight shorts – any color you like, but navy blue and black were the most common.
  • An X-Large or larger men’s heavy cotton knit shirt – any color, but again, black or blue was common.
  • A belt – optional
  • Knee-high trouser socks
  • Mary Jane shoes

*All of these items are available at WalMart, KMart, Target, or similar stores, except maybe the shoes.

Step One:
You are starting with a men’s x-large shirt.  This shirt should be the heaviest cotton knit you can find, and the hem of it should extend down to your thighs.

Cut the sleeves off, and slice open the side seams.

Step Two:
With the shirt on your dress form (or on you, if you have a friend helping you), pull both sides of the front taught across the form, and mark the strap and underarm curve on the front, allowing at least 1/2″ seam allowance.  You only need to do this on one side.

Use chalk to mark.

Remove the shirt, fold in half length-wise, and cut out the front armscye.

Do the same for the back of the shirt, making sure to match the markings to the front, under the arm.

Lastly, mark and cut the neckline for back and front.

Step Three:
Double-turn the edges of the new armscyes and neckline, and top-stitch them down using either an overlock stitch on your sewing machine, or a serger.  A zig-zag stitch will also work, but be sure not to pull the fabric through the presser foot, as you sew.  Refer to your sewing machine’s book to see which stitches are most appropriate for stretch, jersey fabrics.

ignore that random white thread, pls.

Step Four:
With the shirt on your dress form, pin the sides together, pulling the front and back of the shirt very taut across the form.  Pin both sides evenly.  As you see in the photo, you are taking in quite a lot of fabric.

Stitch the sides using your overlock stitch or serger, and cut off the excess.

Step Five:
Try your suit on.  It should fit the body very tightly, but not uncomfortably.  If it is too loose, take in more at the side seams.  If it is too long, mark your desired length while you are wearing it (to account for the caboose), and hem using your overlock stitch or serger.  The hem should be right about at the hem of your shorts, or just above.

Step Six:
Trim!  There are many examples of fun trimmings to add to your suit – white ribbon applique, patches, bias edging.  I chose to encase the neckline with white bias tape.

Add accessories.  I put a white belt with mine, and will carry a parasol to keep the sun off.  Also, don’t forget the knee-high socks and the shoes.  It seems odd to wear socks and shoes with your swimsuit, but this is what makes the suit look vintage.  I got black, lightweight trouser socks at WalMart, and put on my mary jane dance shoes.

And that’s it!

The preview, before this weekend.

But you know what?  You can make this swimsuit even more easily (but less historically accurate)….

  • Pair your short black shorts with a long-length tank top, like this one from Target
  • put on a white belt at the waist, knee-high black socks and mary jane shoes, 
  • and you’re done.  Seriously.

I hope you found this tutorial helpful!  I’ll have photos to post of use girls at the Gatsby, after this weekend 🙂

More resources for learning about 1920s swimwear:
Everyday Fashion of the 1920s (Sears Catalog)
1920s Fashion: The Definitive Sourcebook


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