Edwardian swimwear allowed beachgoers to shed volumes of fabric for body-skimming alternatives. From the 1890s through 1910s many people tested new waters as hems rose, necklines dropped, sleeves grew shorter and stockings disappeared along with swim hats.
Queen Victoria died January 22, 1901 and Edward VII ascended the throne. His persona dominated high society taste and fashion throughout the Edwardian era. Squeezed between two centuries, the world was in upheaval. Edwardian swimwear reflected the sea change ahead.
As evidenced in these photos and newspaper articles, some embraced profound changes while others remained undercover.
Edwardian Summers Enticed Australian Beachgoers
These photographs taken on Australian beaches are just one of 51 albums created by lawyer and amateur photographer Wigram Allen (1862–1941). Now held by the State Library of NSW, they were the subject of a book and exhibition at the Museum of Sydney. Collectively, they capture one of the most rapidly changing times in Australian history.
As in many countries, Australia’s cities were increasingly connected to beach towns by public transportation. Seaports provided the ideal day-trip for large crowds of visitors. Still, swimming was discouraged in colonial Sydney because of its dangers and early laws that prohibited bathing during daylight hours.
According to the Museum of Sydney, people gradually defied the daylight bathing laws. By 1900 newspapers reported that entire families had taken to sea bathing.
“In 1902, a male swimmer at Manly Beach entered the water at midday. Although arrested, he was not charged, and by 1903 new laws were introduced that permitted surf bathing but required neck-to-knee outfits and prohibited the sexes to mingle. Mixed bathing soon followed, but swimming attire continued to be stringently regulated for some years to come.”
Annette Kellerman Loosened A Few Laces
When Annette Kellerman stepped onto Revere Beach in Boston in 1907 wearing her one-piece knee-length Edwardian Swimwear, newspapers allegedly reported that she was arrested for indecent exposure. Her story might have been a publicity gimmick like the Giant Potato Hoax that gained its own steam and credibility as it was told and retold. As the story went, the judge released her with the understanding that she would wear the suit strictly for professional training and not for leisure swimming. He also ordered her to wear black stocking with the scandalous Edwardian Swimwear.
Until, the late 1890s and early 1900s, Victorian women experienced the ocean primarily from the cover of bathing machines. If lucky, they could jump through waves while holding a rope attached to a buoy offshore. And then Annette Kellerman (July 6, 1887 – November 6, 1975) came along.
Kellerman straddled three continents and two centuries. She reinvented beauty as a champion swimmer at a time when women with strong muscles were considered by many to be unattractive, if not subversive.
She first established her prowess as a competitive swimmer and diver in Australia, then Europe and the United States. Kellerman was adamant that voluminous Victorian swimwear was downright dangerous and it held women back from proper swimming. While she did not invent one-piece Edwardian swimwear, she was instrumental in finessing its shape and escalating popularity.
By 1912, female swimmers wore the new Edwardian swimwear as they competed in the Olympics.
The New Fashions Got Bad Press For Years To Come
As in Australia and Europe American beachgoers sporting Edwardian Swimwear provided fodder for news articles for several years to come. Following are just a few tidbits.
Washington Post July 18, 1915
When Is A Woman’s Bathing Suit Not Suitable?
What is a woman’s bathing suit? Is the single-piece suit attire for men the last two or three years, suitable for women’s wear at the Milwaukee beaches?
Or must women continue to apparel themselves in bloomers and heavy flowing skirts?
McKinley park bathing beach employees are in a quandary. Twice this season women have appeared at the beach in the one-piece man effect suit with skirt attachment. Twice the employees were confronted with an actual problem.
New York Times, May 30, 1919
Women Deputies Sworn In
Gambling and Bathing Suits At Rockaways To Be Watched
Gambling and the wearing of bathing suits of diminutive proportions are to be watched for by a score of women Special Deputy Sheriffs sworn in yesterday by Sheriff Samuel Mitchell of Queens for duty in the Rockaways this summer. The “Sheriffettes,” as they were named, go on duty today.
New York Times, June 26, 1919
Judge Reprimands Police: Criticizes Arrest of Woman Who Wore Bathing Suit Under Skirt.
Magistrate Geismar, in the Coney Island Court, yesterday reprimanded the police for arresting an alleged violator of the park ordinance forbidding persons to walk along Ocean Parkway in other than complete street attire.
Mrs. Goldman was ordered to return home because she had a bathing suit under a sweat and a skirt.
New York Times. Sept. 5, 1921
In this story a woman was arrested for assaulting a beach policeman who insisted that she cover her bare knees.
“Miss Rosine now faces a more serious charge than that of merely displaying bare knees on the beach in defiance of the rules. Beach Policeman Shaw, who was given a lusty blow by the California writer for trying to tell her what she should wear in the line of knee covering, insists on pushing the charge of assaulting an officer on which she was technically jailed yesterday noon.”
Old Versus New At The Turn Of The Century
The fin de siècle found many people in conflict between the old ways and the new. History is rich with stories that reflect this turmoil, like the globe-circling race in 1889. Trailblazing reporter Nellie Bly challenged Jules Verne’s fictional record around the world in eighty days. Bly embraced front-page bylines as a symbol of the New Woman. Meanwhile, her rival Elizabeth Bisland, considered the race appalling by Victorian standards of proper etiquette. Ultimately, Bisland gave in, rolling up her sleeves in a “most unladylike fashion” to challenge Bly in the opposite direction around the world.
Racing Nellie Bly
Victorian Secrets From Footnotes In History
Know The Past To Invent The Future