It’s Hot: Let’s Look At Some Bathing Suits

Hello lovelies- mid-August is upon us. It feels like pretty much everywhere, it’s hot, hot, hot. And until the relief of fall comes, it will, presumably, continue to be hot. What helps to cool down when it’s hot? A swim, of course!

Bathing shoes, c. 1910, from the collection at LACMA.

Historically, swimming hasn’t only been a means of cooling down. Bathing has long been tied to fashion trends through swimwear, and social trends as well.

In the 18th century, ‘bathing’ was often exactly that: washing oneself in a natural body of water. Additionally, swimming in the sea was believed to have health benefits (as long as you didn’t fully immerse yourself, how unladylike!). Women would don loosely fitting, open bathing gowns that were similar in shape to chemises. Often, the hems of these gowns would be weighed down with lead weights, to ensure that the gown didn’t float up and compromise modesty.

Martha Washington’s bathing gown, from George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

This blue and white checked bathing gown belonged to Martha Washington in the 1760s- she may have worn it on a trip to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, where she brought her daughter Patsy (who had epilepsy) to soak in the mineral waters.

Mermaids at Brighton” by William Heath (1795 – 1840), c. 1829

The 18th century also saw the introduction of “bathing machines”, which were specialized four-wheel carriages that would be rolled into the water. Bathing machines continued to be used into the 19th century. Bathing machines allowed one to step directly into the water, rather than wading in. This feature was also thought of as a way to preserve modesty.

19th century bathing machines on the beach.

In the 19th century, visits to the seaside for health were still popular. As time went on, swimming was thought of as both a leisure activity and as an exercise in health improvement. The ever-formal Victorians prioritized modesty in their bathing activities. Bathing costumes were similar to fashionable clothing of the time, and the simple, open bathing costumes of the 18th century were replaced with more involved ensembles.

An American bathing costume from 1870s.

These bathing costumes really weren’t great for actually swimming, or water safety. The heavy fabrics made from natural fibers like cotton and linen would absorb lots of water, making them heavy and restrictive.

“A Jolly Crowd”: this stereoscopic photograph taken by B.W. Kilburn in Atlantic City N.J around 1897 shows a crowd of merry swimmers. Victorians: They’re Just Like Us!

Since they had shorter skirts than typical daywear, late-19th century bathing costumes were often paired with bloomers or a form of trousers for modesty. Bathing costumes were often made in dark colors, which helped conceal if they were wet or not, and often featured nautical themes. So cute!

American bathing suit c. 1878-80, from the collection at the Met Museum.

In the fin-de-siècle period, at the very end of the 19th century, one-piece Princess Suits were an alternative to separate dresses and bloomers. This jumpsuit of sorts was initially paired with a mid-calf length skirt for modesty, which kind of defeated the purpose of a more practical one-piece garment. Have you ever tried to swim in a calf-length wool skirt? Do not recommend!

American Princess suit, c. 1890-95, from the collection at the Met Museum.

By the 1890s, though, tweaks were made to these one-piece suits to make them more efficient for swimming. The legs of the suits and skirts were shortened, and knitted materials began to replace heavier woven fabrics.

Wool bathing costume c. 1910, from the collection at the V&A. The skirt is a separate piece from the underlying suit.
Bathing suit from Wanamaker’s, c. 1900, made from silk, wool, and cotton. From the collection at the Met Museum.

Some early Edwardian bathing costumes from the Delineator in June 1902. Thanks to the Vintage Victorian for the images.

Australian professional swimmer Annette Kellerman, who advocated for one-piece bathing suits for women in the early 1900s. Her resulting line of swimwear, “Annette Kellermans”, helped propel women’s swimwear into modernity.

Swimwear exploded in the 20th century. Bathing suits went from Princess Suits to bikinis within 40 years! Within that time period, swimwear saw some major drama, including changing silhouettes, restrictive laws and social conventions about showing women’s bodies, and the evolution of swimming as a sport. In fact, there’s too much for one blog post here. Perhaps we will write a part 2 about swimwear post 1900s?

Studio portrait of two ladies in stylized bathing costumes, produced by the Ullman Mfg. Co. in 1902, from the Library of Congress.

Stay cool, everyone!


  • Kimstu

    August 18, 2023 at 6:10 PM

    Help me, American Duchess Blog, you’re my only hope! I know this may not be the appropriate place to ask about historical shoe styles, but I can’t figure out where to submit general queries. I have been stumped by a slew of early 20th-c. (and earlier?) references in fiction and advertising to a ladies’ shoe/slipper style called “Newport ties”. Apparently they were often made of kid, and advertised along with opera slippers, and had no buttons or buttonholes. So, some kind of light, maybe casual slipper with an attached ribbon instep tie? Or ankle tie? But what did they look like? And why “Newport”? Might you ever make some? The internet is no help! Thanks for any info!

  • Alexandra

    September 6, 2023 at 2:03 AM

    An absolute joy to read!
    Seeing swimwear through history was a real treat, and the photograph of the Victorian swimmers made my day! Thank you!


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