Bathing Costumes

The development of special clothing for swimming went through important changes during the 1800s and early 1900s. Though people of various cultures had bathed in oceans, rivers, and lakes for centuries, the nineteenth century saw a dramatic rise in the popularity of swimming as a recreational activity. Late in the eighteenth century, scientists had learned more about the causes of disease which in turn rid the Western world of a fear of bathing, and people began to embrace the water as a delightful recreation and sport. Railroads, newly built across Europe and the United States, enabled people to travel more easily, and many took the new trains to seaside resorts where they could relax on the beach and swim in the ocean. These vacationers began to demand less burdensome clothing for their beach activities.

The extreme modesty of the Victorian period (relating to the conservative times of Britain's Queen Victoria [1837–1901]) required that bathing costumes cover almost as much of the body as regular street clothes. During the first half of the century, women wore heavy bathing dresses made of wool, with corsets underneath. These bulky dresses were quite heavy once they were wet, and some ladies increased the weight further by sewing weights into the hems of their skirts to prevent them from floating up in the water. Women wearing these early Victorian costumes did little actual swimming and instead bobbed or splashed in the water. Active swimming was seen as an activity for men.

As women began to gain more social freedom during the late 1800s, sportswear, including a daring new bathing costume, was introduced for the more active woman. Reproduced by permission of © .

Men were allowed a bit more freedom in bathing dress, though they still remained modestly covered in long sleeveless woolen jerseys over knee-length trousers. It was illegal in most places for men to expose their chests, and many beaches required men to have a modesty skirt, a piece of loose fabric covering their genital area.

During the 1860s, as women began to gain more social freedom, sportswear was introduced for the more active woman. Among the new sports outfits was a daring modern bathing costume. Similar to the clothing men wore to swim, the new bathing suits had three parts: a short belted dress, knee-length bloomers, and dark stockings. Though the new suits offered more freedom of movement, they were still made of heavy wool. As the century progressed, the sleeves became shorter, until, by the early 1900s, women too wore sleeveless bathing dresses. Less weighted down by their clothes, women began to join men in active swimming and in demanding still more practical and revealing swimwear. In 1907, famous Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman (1887–1975) was arrested for appearing on a New Jersey beach in a knee-length sleeveless one-piece bathing suit. However, by the 1920s, the one-piece suit had become common beachwear for both men and women.


Lenacek, Lena. Making Waves: Swimsuits and the Undressing of America. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1989.

Martin, Richard. Splash!: A History of Swimwear. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.

[ See also Volume 4, 1919–29: Swimwear ]

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