The most popular swimwear today–the bikini–was worn in the time of Ancient Rome too. At least that’s what we learn from one Roman villa near Sicily’s Piazza Armerina that displays a beautiful mosaic depicting women wearing something like a bikini.
But if we take a look at beach apparel at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, times were drastically different.
Let’s just say beachgoers were certainly spared the sight of exposed legs or arms–or even necks.
Back then, beach apparel was intended to cover the body almost entirely, because any nudity was considered immoral.
Outfits designed to cover most of the body’s parts appeared during the 18th century and endured through the 19th century and the first decade also of the 20th.
Notice those bare arms and legs. A studio portrait from 1905: ‘The Water Nymph, Miss Pansy Montague.”
This is a photo from Muskoka, Ontario, in 1909. Bloomers and stockings were obviously a thing.
Two girls sporting some zebra-style swimsuits (1906).
A 1906 caption of Australian swimmer and actress Annette Kellerman. Here she poses in her self-designed Black Diving Suit.
Three years later, Kellerman again. Her style was provocative, as with this posture where she leans on a diving board.
Annette Kellerman, here in a short-leg self-designed suit, exceptionally bold for the era.
These were entirely different times at the beach (1900).
A woman and a man at the Ostend Beach in Belgium. Notice the “bathing machine” in the background, now relics of the Victorian era.
Annette Kellerman more than once ended up in trouble for her daring sense of swimming suits. This photo is from 1907, the year in which she was detained for her outfit choices.
An Edwardian-style bathing suit. Made of twilled cotton, colored red, Photo by Auckland Museum CC-BY 4.0
Life at the beach in Heringsdorf, at the Baltic Sea. Two women of the area wearing beautiful striped costumes (1909). Photo by Haeckel, Otto CC-BY-SA 3.0
The mid 19th-century saw the heyday of swimsuits that combined matching bloomers and stockings. Combined with drawers, the exposure issue seemed to be fixed.
Spectacular Women’s Style From The 1920s
The Victorian days were marked by gender division when it came to seaside life. Men and women were not supposed to mingle on most of the beaches.
Sailor-inspired styles were popular. Blue-, white-, and red-striped costumes added color to the beach, while some opted for entirely navy blue or black colored one-piece swimming suits.
German beach fashion typical of the period between 1890 and 1910: a buttoned skirt and a straw hat. Don’t miss the laced shoes and white stockings that go with this combination. Photo by Wuselig CC BY-SA 4.0
A bathing suit illustration as seen in a Canadian textile journal from 1908.
It’s Christmas on the beach in 1906, at Wellington Point, Queensland, a popular resort of the day.
An Edwardian bathing costume also for women: a two-piece, made of cotton and colored cornflower blue. Another favorite in the early 20th century,
Photo by Auckland Museum, CC BY 4.0
Family affairs at the beach, 1900. And who wouldn’t love the robe that man on the left is wearing?
Cotton swimsuit with a button-down skirt. This piece of fashion trended in the period from 1890 to 1910. GLAM-on-Tour: Industrial Museum Cromford Textile Factory in Ratingen 2016. Photo by Geolina163 CC BY-SA 4.0
A group photo from 1900 in front of a beach cafe. All men are wearing black swimming suits.
Funny postcard: “Newest street guide through Berlin and suburbs” ca. 1900
Katherine Edith Green and Dorothy Spark at ‘Everton’ Caloundra wearing their swimming costumes. Probably 1910.
A woman on the beach in 1905, toting an old-fashioned parasol.
Seaside life in Oslo, Norway, c. 1910
And some Finnish beach-goers in Ollila, 1907.
A woman in a one piece swimming suit, 1899
An exhibition of swimsuits at the Textile Museum Cromford in Ratingen, Photo by 1971markus, CC BY-SA 4.0
Close up of the petrol-colored dots swimming suit, with a matching hat for the sun. At the Textile Museum Cromford in Ratingen.Photo by 1971markus, CC BY-SA 4.0
Navy blue and red-edged swimming costume labeled “Poneke” (that is the Maori translation of Port Nicholson, the initial name the British settlers gave to the city of Wellington. Photo by Auckland Museum CC BY 4.0
Black and yellow one-piece with shoulder fastening and long overskirt, Photo by Auckland Museum CC BY 4.0
Exposed arms and legs slowly but surely entered fashion by the 1910s as women started to opt for swimsuits that allowed for freer movement when bathing or swimming. Still, the outfits were modest and bowed to the ethics of society. The swimming costumes still covered the rest of the female body and were generally loose-fitting.
Luckily, there were bold women like Annette Kellerman who brought swimwear to the next level, and some of these taboos were finally broken.
Victorian words we should be using today
Australian-born Kellerman, who was a swimmer and also a famous silent era movie actress, was not only the first woman who swam across the English Channel, but also the one who introduced outfits that helped beach apparel evolve in the first decades of the 20th century.
Her outfits, such as an audacious one-piece swimming costume that “dangerously” showed the form of her body, brought her trouble. She was at one point detained in Boston in 1907.
Annette Kellerman (1887-1975), Australian professional swimmer, vaudeville and film star in her famous custom swimsuit (designed to allow for serious athletic swimming, unlike conventional women’s swimwear of the period, but considered indecent by some). 1900.
Icelandic beachgoers at the swimming pavilion “Grettir” in Skerjafjörður, 1909
French swimsuits that were used for bathing in the Seine River in Paris during the early 20th century. The pieces on the left and center are male; the one on the right is for females.
A woman in her bathing costume, wading in the water, 1901.
Looking decent at the beach. The 1900s.
Seaside life: A nice lady with a sun-shade, 1909.
Strike a pose: A woman in a stripped-style swimwear circa 1905.
Women elsewhere faced obstacles if they opted for more “daring” outfits, needless to say. There were times when people were employed at the beach to merely regulate how long your sleeves should be or if any of the rest of the costume was not appropriate for other beach-goers to see.
Another story from us:Dazzling 1920s wedding dresses: epitome of glamour, but in modern silhouette
Times have again changed, and what seems to have been appropriate even in ancient Rome–the bikini–is perfectly fine for today’s standards too.