Obsolete Fashion: A Brief (and Modest) History of the Bathing Suit

bathing costume, Victorian, obsolete fashion

Images (Left to right): Vicfun.blogspot.com and Fuzzylizzie

With the introduction of railways in the early 1800s, the seaside emerged as a popular destination for vacationers from all classes. Still, modesty ruled the Victorian era, and ladies would wade onto the beach in bathing costumes made of serge or flannel, some with weights sewn into the hem to keep the garment from floating up and revealing too much leg!

By the 1860s, those cumbersome costumes were replaced by belted two-pieces (see images above). These swimsuits were still made of heavy flannel or wool, with three-quarter length trousers as bottoms and tops resembling overcoats. At ocean resorts,  people undressed in miniature wheeled cabins, which were drawn out into the water by horse, allowing the modest Victorian woman to spend her day on the beach in complete privacy and remain unseen when she emerged from the water in her soaking flannel.

Three decades later, knee-length wool dresses featuring puffed sleeves and sailor collars were all the rage. These were worn with bloomers trimmed with ribbons and bows, and worn over black stockings, lace-up slippers, and caps.

By the turn of the century, women were participating in more seaside activities like swimming and diving, and figure-obscuring bathing costumes were traded for slightly more form-fitting, limb-freeing cuts. In the 1920s, necklines on bathing attire were lowered while the bottoms shortened. “The newest thing for the sea is a jersey bathing suit as near a maillot as the unwritten law will permit,” reads a 1920s issue of Vogue. As for where the bathing suit went from there… well, look no further than your own closet!

What think you, ModReaders? Do you ever have the urge to wear a pair of beribboned bloomers to the beach? Is there such a thing as “covering up” too much? Cast your vote, and/or leave a comment below!

<br /> <a href=”http://answers.polldaddy.com/poll/3083018/” mce_href=”http://answers.polldaddy.com/poll/3083018/”>Is there such a thing as “covering up too much”?</a><br /> <span style=”font:9px;” mce_style=”font:9px;”>(<a href=”http://www.polldaddy.com” mce_href=”http://www.polldaddy.com”>polls</a>)</span><br />


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  1. Avatar
    JessMarie 04/20/2010 at 5:06 pm #

    I love it when people embrace their curves!

    “Only actions give life strength; only moderation gives it charm.” – Jean Paul Richter

    Less is more ladies ;D

  2. Avatar
    Katharine 04/20/2010 at 6:32 pm #

    Good heavens, young ladies in breeches! Most shocking…

  3. Avatar
    Rachel 04/20/2010 at 7:31 pm #

    i love this

  4. Avatar
    Kim 04/20/2010 at 9:01 pm #

    Lol, can you imagine trying to swim in any of the top outfits? You’d sink! Although, I suppose it wasn’t considered lady-like to go out and start doing laps or anything.

  5. Avatar
    Andrea Acri 04/20/2010 at 11:13 pm #

    A wool overcoat would make for a most unfortunate bathing suit. Let’s not bare all ladies, but there is nothing innately evil bout the female body that needs to be hidden from respectable company!

  6. Avatar
    Love and Peas Designs 04/21/2010 at 2:20 am #

    I think those old fashioned bathing suits are fantastic. There’s nothing wrong with showing a little modesty out there…then again I have a history bikini tops untying themselves and then drifting away, so I may be a little biased.

  7. Avatar
    Hilary 04/21/2010 at 8:12 am #

    I agree Kim.

    I think you can cover up too much, if there comes a point where your bathing suit is actually a health risk when swimming. I couldn’t possibly imagine swimming in something made of wool.

  8. Avatar
    Kate (ModCloth) 04/21/2010 at 10:33 am #

    Some women still wear modest swimsuits today! For examples, all you need to do is google “Islamic swimwear.” Of course, they tend to be made of modern water-friendly materials. 🙂

  9. Avatar
    Kate (ModCloth) 04/21/2010 at 10:36 am #

    … alternatively, you can get reproduction Victorian swimwear, too!

  10. Avatar
    Casey 04/21/2010 at 11:09 am #

    I am very confused about the poll because if the question is asking if there is such a thing as covering up too much, both of the answers mean the same thing. The answer yes would mean that there is such a thing as covering up too much. The other option, “No, less is always more!” means that less clothing is better, which means the same as the first option. I hate to analyze the blog, but I was very confused. Interesting entry though!

  11. Avatar
    Mousevox Vintage 04/21/2010 at 11:31 am #

    Modesty is something to be appreciated, I think, but when it comes to practicality, less is more when it comes to swim wear (in my opinion).

  12. Avatar
    Jennifer (ModCloth) 04/21/2010 at 2:15 pm #

    Hi Casey! By “less is always more,” we meant showing less skin – not less fabric. You’re right, though. The phrasing is a little confusing! Thanks for giving us a head’s up.

  13. Avatar
    Alyssa 04/21/2010 at 6:11 pm #

    I was just about to say the same thing as Casey. I saw this poll yesterday and assumed which was which, but the more I thought about it the more it bothered me. Glad to see you cleared things up!

  14. Avatar
    katie 04/22/2010 at 12:04 pm #

    I can’t imagine swimming in wool (and I’m allergic to it), but I’m always up for covering more of my fair/easily burnt skin! However, the second photo shows some pretty fun-looking suits. I kind of want a bathing outfit like that to take on my beach-side honeymoon.

  15. Avatar
    Kit 04/23/2010 at 2:25 am #

    Because I live in Queensland, Australia (the skin cancer capital of the world) and I have extremely fair skin, I wear modest swim suites so as to reduce the risk of sunburn and deadly skin cancer. It is amazing considering we are have a very small population, on average over 1700 people will die from skin cancer in australia each year.

    I wonder how women would swim in those top outfits? I can’t imagine swimming in WOOL! lol Great blog, modcloth!

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