Swimming Suits

Until the mid-nineteenth century, swimming was an activity almost entirely limited to men. While men and women were segregated at baths and beaches, men were free to practice swimming unencumbered by clothes. As mixed bathing became more popular, however, they were forced to find a suitable costume, and by the 1850s men generally wore one-piece knit suits very similar to contemporary one-piece underwear (called union suits), but usually with short sleeves and legs cut off at the knees. Later in the century, there was also a two-piece version available, consisting of a short-sleeved or sleeve less tunic over knee-length drawers. To avoid any hint of impropriety caused by appearing in garments so similar to underwear, men's bathing suits were usually dark in color, sometimes with contrasting bands at the edges; striped suits were also popular, especially in France. This practical knit costume remained basically unchanged until the 1930s.

Women who wished to swim, however, found it much more difficult to find a suitable costume. Beginning in the 1860s, women were encouraged to take up swimming for exercise, and by the 1870s many women were learning to swim at pools and bathhouses, which had separate times designated for male and female bathers. In these sex-segregated situations, and for swimming competitions and demonstrations, female swimmers adopted simple "princess-style" one-piece suits, knitted garments similar to men's suits, or suits with long tights similar to those worn by circus performers. However, these garments were still not acceptable in mixed company, or for public wear out of the water, until the early twentieth century. The Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman became famous early in the century for her long-distance swimming feats and exhibitions of fancy diving, for which she wore sleeveless, form-fitting one-piece suits of black wool knit, sometimes with full-length stockings attached. She was an outspoken advocate for practical swimwear for women, and when she was arrested for indecent exposure for wearing a one-piece suit to a public beach in Boston in 1907, the resulting trial and publicity helped to change public attitudes on the subject. In 1912, the Olympic Games in Stockholm were the first to include women's swimming events, and by the beginning of World War I, one-piece knit suits had gained wide acceptance. In many places, however, local authorities passed strict bathing suit regulations, and the battle over the alleged indecency of abbreviated suits, particularly when worn without stockings, continued in many places into the 1920s.

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