Saturday, April 30, 2016

Common Myths about Victorian Bathing Costumes

As summer approaches (as hard as that is to believe when it's 50F outside!), I've been thinking about summer fashions and the beach a lot. I've been invited to a "Seaside" party Victorian style this summer and really want to dress for the occasion. This means a fun, and somewhat ridiculous bathing suit for me! However, I wanted to research what they really wore and not just what I've been told. This means going back to the fashion magazines of the time. Looking over those, I found a lot of what I've been told about bathing fashions isn't quite true, or a lot of half truths, or truthful sometimes. In other words, there is a lot of misconceptions out there that I know others have fallen for as well. Here are a few of them.

1. They always wore heavy wool bathing suits until the early 20th century!

My first Edwardian swimsuit that I made years ago was out of heavy wool for this reason. Because of that, I really wanted to find out if the Victorians (and Edwardians) ever used anything else - and they did. A lot.

Isn't it cute? It's from The Milliner and the Dressmaker circa 1870.  The text reads: Very elegant bathing costume for a young lady of white molleton, trimmed with scarlet.  The drawers are fastened under the knee and ornamented with scarlet bows.  Bodice with basque cut in tabs, and trimmed with scarlet braid.  The trimming simulates a low bodice and chemisette, very short sleeves, with bows on the top.  

So what is molleton? It's a cotton. It's basically what we call flannel cotton. Here on this side of the pond and in the 21st Century, it's much easier to obtain plain flannel cotton for cheap than it is wool flannel.

From Letts's illustrated household magazine circa 1884 we have the following:

The text reads: In order that children may enjoy their bath, it is desirable they should have a proper dress to wear.  This should be made of wool, because the body is not so apt to be chilled by wet serge or flannel as by wet cotton or linen.  Bathing dresses are made sometimes of silk or striped cotton material but they cling most ungracefully and are not so useful as a serge costume. The ordinary serge for bathing dresses is not expensive it is true it loses its colour but daily immersion in the sea will spoil the best material in course of time. 

So here, we learn a lot more. Although it's discussing children, it's clear that the author is also referring to adults given the "cling most ungracefully". According to the author then, wool is the preferred but there are a lot of other fabrics mentioned. Silk, striped cotton, and linen all sound much preferable to me to wet wool flannel! Wool serge is a type of twill and most people could probably get away with wool suiting by the looks of it. So, even wool serge sounds preferable to wool flannel. (Although they do make some thin wool flannels, it's not as easy to find and it's still $$$)

This one to the left is from The Index circa 1904. The text reads: BATHING SUITS The French bathing suit has become very conventional. In spite of the fact that it is supposed to be a thing of extremes, it is quiet, conservative and moderate. The tricky, natty little silk creation which passed for a bathing suit in the French Pictures is gone apparently forever, and if seen at all, is seen only in the cartoons and funny papers. The French bathing suit of to day might be seen at Asbury Park, and it is surely copied at Newport Bar Harbor and Narragansett. 
This bathing suit which is made of poplin or of one of the mohair family, is built of some standard color. The most popular ones are in navy blue of that shade of navy of which one never tires while those that follow closely after are of seal brown wood brown invisible brown and black. Then there come the grays and one sees many suits in that brilliant shade of gray which one always associates with Irish poplin. Cranberry red suits, suits that are of a medium green hue, and other suits that branch out into the ecru and burnt biscuit tints comprise nearly the whole of the list of water suits. 
There are washable silks that make excellent bathing dresses but unfortunately they have a tendency to cling to the figure. They are neat and comfortable but they will cling. To obviate this clinging tendency these suits are lined. They are sometimes lined with mohair and sometimes with a thin lightweight flannel of the kind that is liked by swimmers who want a warm suit as well as one that will not cling. 
 Brilliantine makes a very pretty water suit and comes in many colors but is at its best in blue. Indeed the choice of blue is always a fortunate one for it is a color that does not become demoralized when wet. Brown on the other hand looks black while gray and red both darken perceptibly But blue holds its own

Later on this post will come back to this text since it mentions colors as well as materials but, for now, we'll stick with the materials. Again, the author hates clinging things but this is from a good twenty years later so, clearly, people were still wearing silks. Other materials mentioned are mohair, poplin, brilliantine, and lightweight flannel. Brilliantine is a blend of cotton and worsted weight wool or cotton and mohair.

The above is from Everybody's Magazine circa 1902. The text reads as follows: This season more than ever before silk has the popular thing for bathing costumes practical ornamental. It has always been much used in for the non water proof suits displayed on the sands, but improvement in the quality of the wash silks made them thoroughly practicable for bathing wear. The silk is even lighter than mohair sheds the quite as well does not cling badly and admits of elaboration than any other material used for the purpose.

Again, silk is mentioned.

The two sections above are from Good Housekeeping circa 1894. This magazine is one I get and really like for the recipes but they do have fashion trends still in it. The text reads as follows: Mohair is now used not only for elaborate dresses for simple walking and traveling dresses but even for bathing suits. It sheds the water so that it does not become saturated and heavy like the silk suits worn last season. 

 So for the Victorian and early Edwardian suits, we now have the following options for fabrics: wool serge, wool flannel, mohair, cotton, linen, washable silk, poplin, a cotton/worsted weight wool blend (or cotton/mohair blend) called Brilliantine, and something similar to cotton flannel. That is a lot of options and many are pretty easy for us to obtain in the 21st century.

The Victorians and Edwardians wore corsets under their bathing suits

This is a fun one because it is true but also not. Let me explain:

In this country there is no such provision for bathers. Women young and old are obliged to run the gauntlet of crowds of spectators who watch their every movement until they are surrounded by the friendly waves and a dress which shall afford a little drapery as well as covering to the limbs is essential. The fullness of the Brighton is laid in three plaits back and front and there is no more than is necessary. Navy blue flannel is the best material to use. In response to many requests we illustrate in the present number our new styles of improved chemise drawers and the Princess chemise both of which are combination garments and especially adapted to summer wear. The chemise drawers are in reality three garments in one. That is to say they are drawers, chemise, and corset cover if a corset is worn. Ladies who are accustomed to wearing gauze flannels through the summer season or at least a vest will find this the best foundation for the corset and in addition ...

The emphasis is mine.  The above is from Demorest's Family Magazine circa 1879. "If a corset is worn" is important because it easily indicates that it is an optional thing. You don't have to wear a corset if you don't want to! For further evidence, let's look at The Illustrated American circa 1896:

Mrs Grundy, Madame Fashion, and Dr Hygiene have always struggled vehemently over their rights in deciding whether women should or should not wear stays in the water, and at present all three of the powers are trying to content themselves with a compromise. The average woman is wearing a corset in the water. It is a comfortable little coutil waist which laced up only in front has no straps over the shoulder and is entirely minus bones. Its own heavily stitched lapped seams provide all the stiffness. For stout swimmers it is a boon and a blessing.

Clearly, this was a contentious issue back in the day. Do you wear a corset or don't you? It looks like it's entirely up to lady with many ladies wearing them but enough historical antidotes to show not everyone did. However, even when wearing a corset, they weren't boned based upon Demorest's. This is repeated in The Delineator circa 1899:

SALT: Choose a bathing suit of dark blue or better still of black material. In dressing for the water first don a thin under vest and over that an old pair of corsets from which the bones have been removed. Then put on a pair of long black yarn stockings for woollen stockings look much better when wet than cotton ones and beside are never too thin as cotton hose are likely to be. Elastics about the knees keep the stockings in place.

The above is also from The Delineator circa 1899 and are bathing corsets. Based on other readings, ladies relied on the heavy seams to keep everything where it needs to be. The curves of this, however, look more like a long line bra than a corset.

3. All Victorian (And Edwardian) swimsuits were navy blue or black. The Victorians (and Edwardians) hated color

Although there clearly was a preference for blue, as we've seen so far in some of the selections, it is not the only color mentioned. The very first item I posted, The Milliner and the Dressmaker circa 1870, mentions white and scarlet. The Index circa 1904 mentions blue, black, gray, brown, cranberry, and green.

However, blue was the most popular. It just wasn't the only. In fact, a lady by the name of Mary Ellen Ferguson wrote the following regarding the colors of bathing suits in the Brooklyn Magazine back in 1885:

 There is considerable variety in bathing suits this year and there is seemingly a greater regard for modesty and taste than ever before.   The suits are made as formerly in two pieces trousers and waist combined and a short skirt which should extend just a little below the knees.   The trousers arc made fuller than the used to be and are now invariably finished at the knee in Knickerbocker fashion never being allowed to hang loosely.   A broad elastic band is used in confining them at the knees.   Some women prefer their bathing suits made with the skirt and waist combined instead of the waist and trousers being in one piece but this is not nearly as healthful or comfortable a way in which to have one made as that first described.   The materials most used in making up bathing suits are flannel camel's hair and cashmere.   The latter material is only used, however, when a particularly fancy suit is desired, and then two colors are generally employed.   Flannel is by all odds much the best material to bathe in.   It should not be too heavy, but it should be of the best quality which does not hold the water like the poorer goods and is much more comfortable and durable.   Olive green, dark red, and seal brown flannel are all much used now but the dark blue still remains most in favor.   It is becoming to the majority of complexions and does not fade as quickly as some of the other colors mentioned.   Bathing suits in plain shades are enlivened by rows of either white or black braid or have dashes of bright red or yellow about them that look very attractive.   Stockings that match the suit in color and turbans that are cleverly made of the trimming are worn.   Gloves and corsets are now considered superfluous and affected and are never worn by sensible women.   A costume recently made for a dainty Newport belle is composed of cream white flannel of the finest quality trimmed with very narrow tinsel braid that glitters in the sunlight like diamonds and which does not tarnish.   There is a yoke waist adorned with innumerable rows of the braid which is also placed in a Greek design around the skirt.   The cream colored stockings have yellow flowers embroidered up their sides and the turban made of the same material as the dress has a band of tinsel braid bordering it. The effect of the costume is very pretty.   A few women have utilized the new woollen plaids for bathing.   But they are not at all attractive after they have once been in the water.  

All the emphasis is mine. Again green, red, navy, white, and brown are mentioned as the color for the bathing suits. The author dismisses plaid but I've seen several other mentions for plaid being used in bathing suits so it, at least, was a thing.  For trims, white, black, yellow, and metallic are colors mentioned. I also emphasized that corsets aren't being worn by "sensible women" at this point - this is 1885 so we are very much in the Victorian era.

I hope this helps anyone else making a Victorian or Edwardian bathing suit.  I know we have several extant ones and I'll list them below.  Let me know if there is any other common beliefs about Victorian/Edwardian bathing suits you'd like explored because I really find this a fun topic!

Extant Bathing Costumes


  1. Great article, very useful. Thank you.

  2. Quite comprehensive. Thanks for pulling the research together and sharing it.


    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! It's been fun learning about the bathing suits.