Being reminded of swim suit season is not something women my age are usually excited about. It started me thinking, though, about the evolution of swim suits, remembering that they were once knit from wool. Yikes!
According to the Women’s Sport Foundation, not until 1912 were women allowed to swim in the Olympic Games. Australian Fanny Durack won the 100 meter women’s freestyle – and guess what she was wearing? A long wool skirted swimsuit! This is even more impressive when you learn that her time was the same as the winner of the men’s 100 meter freestyle. Translation for non-swimmers: Subtracting the drag time from the long wool skirted swimsuit means Ms. Durack’s time was better! (Reminds me of a bumper sticker I once saw: Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did – only backwards and in high heels.)
So last night I perused Making Waves: Swimsuits & the Undressing of America (1989), by Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker. (My daughter, a competitive swimmer when young, received this book as a birthday gift years ago.) Then I went back to the family photos.
Here’s a picture of a bathing costume from the late 1890s. It’s made of wool, and the idea of wearing that while walking on a sunny beach makes my skin crawl – and I like wool! Given the amount of water wool absorbs (one-third its weight), I imagine this get up would have been rather dangerous if you wanted to really swim or got pulled out by a wave and really had to swim!
A few years later (1916), and here is another woolen bathing suit. Harvard was not matriculating female students at that time, so I’m not sure what “H” stands for – though the color (crimson) is right. I am sure this isn’t a man’s bathing suit. Though men’s suits needed a sort of modestly “skirt,” that was accomplished by a long top that came close to the bottom of the shorts, not a dress.
I think this is pretty snazzy: A woolen bathing cover up from 1925! This would be worn over the maillot, ensuring a modest attire. Notice the pompoms … I can imagine them soaking wet, coated in sand, swinging in the wind and hitting the wearer in the face. I can’t tell for sure, but is that a large hood hanging down the back?
Of course, this woolen coverup might be quiet handy for members of the Dolphin Club – the group in San Francisco that regularly meets to swim in the oh-so-chilly waters of the Bay!
This suit from 1930 is also woolen. From what I read in Making Waves, given the size of the armholes this suit would have been worn by a man. (I doubt I could get Thor to wear it.) Yes, I agree it seems rather effeminate … but have you seen the swim suits for men as well as the idealized male form from the ’30s?
A parenthetical paragraph: By the way, it was once illegal on most U.S. beaches for men to appear in only swim trunks. Some of men’s swim outfits had tops that zipped to the bottoms … perhaps for those daring men who risked unzipping and running bare-chested. 🙂 It wasn’t until 1935, in fact, that men were allowed to wear “topless” suits in competition.
In 1943, the U.S. government ordered a fabric reduction in swimsuits that led to the first two piece swimsuits. Subsequently and in combination with the advent of synthetics created for use during World War II, swimsuit design and fabric exploded. Imagine – stretchable fabric that wasn’t wool! Stretchable fabric that didn’t absorb enough water to make swimming dangerous!
The red two piece women’s suit on the right is from 1949. Rather cute, yes, but it is knit from wool as well!
I found a couple of great patterns for knit and/or crochet bathing suits (a whole ensemble, actually) from the 1930s on Etsy. Take a peek at two: here and here. I also found a 1949 knitting pattern for a bathing suit. The pattern uses Lastex – a yarn made from various fabrics (e.g., silk, cotton, rayon) with an elastic core. If you prefer more modern styles, take a peek at these!
Anyone up for starting a vintage knit/crochet swimsuit group? Or is there already one on Ravelry?
I think I like the two-piece red one from 1949 the best. What about you?
Now a plea: Okay, please tell me that I’m not the only one who remembers crocheting and wearing skimpy halter tops in the 1970s!