Oct 20, 2011

Collecting Vintage Bathing Suits

I love to swim. I grew up on the lakes, 10,000 lakes to be exact! Swimming has always been a part of my existence. It is getting a little cold in the season to be swimming in the lakes. But I do have a healthy regimen of frequent lap swimming at the local Y. Recently the suit dryer ate a chunk-the left strap to be exact-out of my suit. (Really, use at your own risk!). I went on an Internet search to find a new "sport" swim suit. In doing my research, I came across a plethora of beautiful vintage bathing suits that would be perfect for lounging on the beach on a summers day, drinking an Arnie Palmer and finishing the Times Crossword. It sparked my interest in the idea of collecting vintage bathing suits.

In the 18th century women were wearing "bathing garments" made of wool to protect the skin from the sun and to keep a woman modest. Sea bathing was quite popular and the wool also added warmth. The swim suits of this era were made to cover arms and legs. Any additional exposure would result in strict legal punishment. Women were known to sew rocks into their suits to prevent them from riding up in the water. These suits were not practical or comfortable. As time went on mixed gender sea bathing/swimming became more acceptable and bathing suits became easier to move in. 

By the end of the 19th century beaches were covered with droves of sand dwellers, surf swimmers, and sea bathers. The bulky Victorian styled suits were becoming obsolete. Less fabric was being used and more of the figure was exposed. Although there were still lines of overexposure drawn in the sand (pun intended). Annette Kellerman, the "underwater ballerina," was arrested for indecent exposure-her one piece neck to ankle bodysuit was too revealing. She than marketed a line of bathing suits which were considered outrageous and the subject of many censorship debates. It changed bathing suits forever.

After that swim suit shapes began to shrink. The arms became shorter then disappeared. The legs began to receded past the knees and up the thighs. And the collar shrunk down from around the neck to the top of the bosom. The fabrics changed from dark and droopy to lighter colors and fun patterns. 

The first Bikini was introduced after World War II. They were named after Bikini Atoll, a nuclear weapons test site, for their explosive effect on the viewer! Through the 1950's it was popular for the bikini bottom to come up over the navel. After the 1960's the bikini got smaller and smaller until it covered little more than the genitals. 

If you are interested in collecting vintage bathing suits I suggest reading this article in Collectors Weekly; An Interview with Vintage Swimwear Collector Pam Fierro. Pam answers absolutely any question any one could have about vintage bathing suits: dating, designers, preservation and more! She also has a wonderful blog "GlamourSplash" dedicated to vintage swimwear and a website where she sells pieces from her own collection.

Available from Amazon are these titles referencing bathing suits and swimwear history; "Vintage Swimwear" by Sarah Kennedy, "Making Waves,"  and "Splash, A History of Swimwear" by Richard Martin. (I also found these fun coffee table books: "Naughty Victorians & Edwardians: Early Images of Bathing Beauties" and "Bathing Beauties of The Roaring Twenties." And here is a helpful essay from Antiques Roadshow on buying and preserving vintage clothing.

One final thought.....hang the suit or wear it?


  1. Are photos available of a more diverse set of women in vintage bathing suits? You've got a diverse following!

  2. That's wonderful! I will create a new, more diverse posting at once. Thanks for the note!