Cruel Comfort: The Evolution of The Swimsuit

When visiting the beach today, what we wear is largely dictated by our personal preferences for style and comfort. Historically speaking, the road to our modern-day quick-drying, form-fitting suits was a long and uncomfortable one.

In the early 1800s, most people did not swim for recreational purposes. Medical authorities, however, were strongly promoting the use of mineral baths and saltwater as restorative and healing. Those of means sought out spas, hot springs and seaside retreats. Men and women who bathed outdoors did so separately and in the nude.

With the gradual rise in the popularity of bathing (swimming), clothing was developed specifically for this activity, and measures were put in place to ensure privacy and modesty. In Britain in 1832, for example, men and women were legally required to remain 60 feet apart on a beach. “Bathing machines,” essentially wooden huts on wheels, were designed to allow privacy. The user would enter onshore, be pulled out into the water by a horse or human assistant, change in swim clothes and swim in privacy.

grey men's bathing suit 1860sShapeless, scratchy, uncomfortable and impractical for swimming, modesty was the only redeeming feature of mid-19th century bathing clothing. This 1860‘s man’s swimsuit from Quebec, left, is a rare example in the collection of the McCord Museum.

1860s women's bathing suitsFor women, throughout the mid-late 19th century, “bathing dresses” were standard. In the 1860s bloomers were worn with long-sleeved tunics, corsets included. These dresses were made from wool, flannel or other fabrics that would not become transparent, or float, when wet. Beach shoes and cap completed the outfit. Comfortable, they were not.

As interest grew in athletic swimming, as opposed to leisurely, therapeutic bathing, men began to wear body-hugging jersey swimsuits that still covered a great deal, but allowed greater freedom of movement. There was less social concern with men showing their bodies in public, and these new suits left little to the imagination, particularly when wet. To distinguish this outfit from underwear, decorative belts and stripes were common.

Early 20th century women’s swimwear continued to be made of wool. The style, however, had become more relaxed, with open necklines, shorter sleeves, knee-length pantaloons and loose-fitting tops.

Annette Kellerman in bathing suitIn 1907, Australian athlete Annette Kellerman, right, was arrested for indecency on a beach in Boston when she wore a one-piece, form-fitting swimsuit. The judge would eventually rule in her favour. This high profile event would help pave the way for a new kind of swimwear, but not without some hiccups.

For decades, women were harassed on public beaches in conservative crackdowns that saw would-be swimmers charged, arrested or asked to leave if their bathing suits were deemed too revealing.

In time, through both public pressure and the greater commercial availability of sleeker, modern swimsuits, both men and women achieved the freedom to dress as they wished while enjoying the sand, surf and sun.

Below - Bathing Suits from the Collection of the McCord Museum

Bathing suit red

1910-1920 bathing suit

striped bathing suit 1920

1920-1930 bathing suit