Victorian Bathing Suits: the Great Cover-Up!


A recent study by Anytime Fitness showed that more than 70 percent of Americans would rather go to the dentist, do taxes, sit in the middle aisle of an airplane or visit in-laws than go shopping for a swimsuit.  Agree or disagree?


I just got back from Laguna Beach, California, which explains why bathing suits are very much on my mind this week.


Young and the not-so-young alike wore the teeniest, tiniest of bikinis everywhere, even in restaurants and on trams.  As a mother, I was tempted to pull my husband’s shirt off on several occasions and wrap it around some scantily-clad teen whose bikini string threatened to pop. 


Fortunately, I contained myself, but one thing became clear; Nothing documents the mores of the times as much as bathing suits. 



Two French designers get credit for inventing the bikini in 1946, but women wore bikini-like costumes for sports and public bathing as early as 1400 BC.  After the fall of the Roman Empire, the church came into power and public bathing disappeared.



Two things happened during the Victorian age that was to have an impact on fashion; Railroads made the seashore a popular destination and women began participating in croquet, golf, bowling, tennis and other sports.  


The most controversial sport was swimming. Considered good for health, swimming also found favor for not causing women to do something as unfeminine as (gasp) sweat. But modesty and white skin took precedence over comfort and even safety.  Any effort to make swimwear more suitable to the sport was met with opposition.  


As a result, feminine bathing suits were typically black and long-sleeved wool dresses were worn over bloomers.  Black stockings, lace-up bathing slippers and a ruffled cap completed the outfit.   



Of course Victorians never left modesty to chance; for added protection weights were sewn into hems to prevent a skirt from floating up and revealing a feminine limb.



Show a leg in the 1800s and the offending woman would find herself arrested for indecent exposure.  One woman in Coney Island was indeed arrested for merely wearing a bathing suit under her street wear.  Men didn’t fare much better.  In 1892 William B. Hemmenway of New York was arrested for swimming in a bathing suit that lacked sleeves. And, of course, strict rules forbade men and women swimming together as more than one hapless couple found out. 


Since some bathing suits reportedly weighed as much as twenty-two pounds, ropes were attached to buoys to give “swimmers” something on which to hold. 



Bathing machines became all the rage in the mid 1800s.  Invented by a Quaker in 1753, bathing machines contained a “modesty tunnel.” These little cabanas would be drawn into the water by horses and allow a female swimmer to emerge from the water in her dripping flannel or wool dress in complete privacy.


This all changed in 1907 when the first woman to swim the English Channel, Annette Kellermen was arrested in Boston for wearing a one-piece form-fitting bathing suit. Considered scandalous at the time, her bathing suit helped pave the way for bigger and…uh…smaller things to come.


I’m happy to report that the teeny-tiny bikinis weren’t the only ones creating a sensation in Laguna Beach last week; My “Mother Teresa” approved swimming suit got its share of attention; If only the looks of disbelief weren’t accompanied by shaking heads.  It’s a good thing I left my hem weights at home



I just got my new book cover.

To preorder simply click on cover. No bathing suits required


Still available!









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20 thoughts on “Victorian Bathing Suits: the Great Cover-Up!”

  1. Fun post, Margaret. About a month or so ago, I rewatched a favorite classic movie called The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (great film, btw and available on the NetFlix instant queue for those who have that). It takes place around the turn of the century in a small seaside villiage, and there is a wonderful scene with exactly what you were describing with the bathing machines.

    There was a little house on the water with ropes extending beyond. Gene Tierney, who plays Mrs. Muir, is frolicking in the waves with her daughter (played by Natalie Wood), and we see her using the ropes to make her way back to the shore and the bathing house before receiving her surprise guest. Great example of a victorian bathing suit and apparatus.

    As a mother of a 14 year-old daughter, I wouldn’t mind a few more “Mother Teresa approved” swim suits. 🙂

  2. Gorgeous covers, Margaret. And what a fun blog.

    Karen, I loved The Ghost and Mrs. Muir but don’t remember the bathing scene. I’ll have to go back and watch it again.

    However, I DO remember the old Esther Williams movie about Annette Kellerman. What was it called? The One Piece Bathing Suit??

  3. Margaret, Clothing-wise women have always had it rough. Just look at corsets, stand-up jet collars, bustles, pantyhose, girdles and purses!
    Imagine a man putting up with these things.
    Purses are my pet peeve. I know a man created them to frustrate us. I can’t ever find what I’m looking for and I end up having to dump the darn thing. If a purse is too small, I can’t carry what I need. If it’s too big, it hurts my shoulder. If it has too few pockets, I have to look through a big mess. It it has too many pockets, I have to look through a big mess. I hate purses! But I love your books Margaret and can’t wait for our next RV outing in Ventura.

  4. Hi Karen, I forgot about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and can’t remember the scene you mentioned. It’s been years since I saw it. I plan to order it from NetFlix. Now that the Olympics are over I need something to watch.

    Have a great weekend!

  5. Hi Elizabeth,

    I can’t remember the name of the movie, but I read somewhere that the one piece suit was called the “Annette Kellerman” bathing suit. I guess that makes sense.

    Maybe someone esle can help us with the movie title.


  6. Love this, Margaret! I learned about the bathing machines when I read about Brighton, England, when our daughter went to school there. Sheesh. Didn’t folks have anything better to worry about…like starving orphans? Hubby saw in a catalog one-piecers that are supposed to make you look two sizes smaller…I confess I ordered two this year. Sheesh again. xoxox

  7. LOL, Chelley!

    It sounds like we need to do a blog about purses. You’re right; there are either too many or too few pockets and they’re never in the right place.

    What we need are movable pockets so a woman can design the inside of her own purse.

    See you in Ventura!

  8. Love the cover AND the blog.
    I’m afraid if I put myself in a bathing suit that is reported to make me look two sizes smaller it would push all the excess to my arms and legs. I hate being squeezed1 I would love a suit that covered most of me! But then again I only go in the pool a ong way from home and I figure everyone needs a laugh, right?

  9. Another interesting blog, Miss Margaret. I’m sure those Victorian women were so frustrated with all the rules and regulations telling them what they could and couldn’t do. Like Chelley said women have always had it rough. Men totally controlled them. I can’t imagine having to swim in something that weighed 22 pounds. Oh my goodness! It’s a wonder they didn’t drown. As for these modern times, we could definitely use a little more modesty. These bikinis and thong bathing suits leave nothing to the imagination. And like you said they wear them to restaurants and everywhere else. I gave up wearing swimsuits a few years back. I’m not a pretty sight in one.

    Congrats on the new book cover!! It’s wonderful. You always get some of the best covers. Hope you see good sales.

  10. Hi Margaret,
    I agree with everyone about the cover. Great one.
    I have photos of my family members in bathing suits in San Diego (LaJolla),in the early 19-teens. They were all black. The men had one piece ones with undershirt type tops. The ladies had similar ones, but they had short skirts. They actually looked sort of silly. Oh, and little hats on the women.
    I saw The Ghost and Mrs. Muir not too long ago and remember that scene in the ocean. At the time, I thought it was dumb, but remembered that it wasn’t cool to show your ankles or any skin. She could have drowned, too. She looked to have more than 22 pounds on. Of course water-soaked it was probably 50.
    Nowadays, the beach communities of California are filled with exhibitionists. They would wear nothing, if they could get away with it. Men’s Speedos? UCK! I’ll leave you with that mental image.

  11. Linds, thank you! I like the cover, too. That bright red dress captures my heroine perfectly.

    I did a search to see if drowning was a problem in the 1800s, but apparently not. It appears that few women actually tried to swim in those suits.


  12. Hi Mary, too bad you can’t share those family photos with us. What a treasure.

    There are still nude beaches in California, so some people do get away with wearing nothing. As for Speedos–you said it all!

  13. Hi Margaret.
    I have the photos! Yay for me for saving everything. But have no scanner, etc. There are many pics I would love to share–just can’t.
    Hugs, Mary J

  14. It is a wonder more women didn’t drown in those outfits. Just getting out of the water would have been quite a chore, with all that wet material and weights. I think the men who arrested Annette Kellermen should have been put in the required bathing suits of the time, dropped off in the water, and told to have fun swimming across Boston Harbor. I doubt they would have made it, let alone make it across the English Channel.

    I can’t blame many for being a bit put off by the bikinis out there. In most cases they belong or might as well be on the nudist beach for the amount they cover.

    I will say I made one and wore it about the time I got married. I never made it out of the back yard, and certainly didn’t wear it to the beach. I haven’t been in a bathing suit for many, many years. It is just me doing my little part to “Keep America Beautiful” : )

    Thanks for another interesting post. Nice cover for WAITING FOR MORNING.

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