HSF 11: The Politics of Fashion – 1920s Swimsuit

June 17, 2014 at 8:41 PM 8 comments

This challenge was about how politics has influenced fashion (or vice versa) which is a very interesting theme. I had several ideas which would have been fun to make, but I realised I had the perfect project which needed to be done anyway.

The 20s swimsuit I made for the last challenge did not utilise the whole pattern, which also had a skirt.

The info from the pattern I used.

The info from the pattern I used.

I had not needed the skirt for my art challenge as my inspiration painting showed a bather in a skirtless suit. But ultimately I do want to try it out both with the skirt and without, to compare how much resistance a skirt adds when swimming. So what’s political about a swimsuit? I think if the law feels the need to regulate something, it counts as political!

In 1922 Col. Sherrell, Supt. of Public Buildings and Grounds, has issued an order that bathing suits at the Washington bathing beach must not be over six inches above the knee

The first bathing garments for women covered a lot more, as much as normal clothes, except that the existence of legs was visible. Early ones were based on the Bloomer costume, which links swimming to feminism in the mid-19th century. People assert that these outfits were not for actual swimming, which is one thing I want to test by making a variety of them. For example, I think it would be possible to swim in these:

Bathing outfits from 1868

Of course it would be harder to swim in those than in something more streamlined. Annette Kellerman was an Australian expert swimmer who campaigned for women in the Northern hemisphere to be allowed to wear the kind of swimsuit Australian women had been wearing for decades for competitive swimming, which was like a man’s (except that many men preferred to swim nude). She was famously arrested in 1907 for wearing this:

Annette Kellerman’s famously ‘indecent’ swimming costume.

My swimming attire should have been safe to wear even without the skirt, but I wouldn’t have wanted to risk this:

Women arrested in Chicago 1922 for failing to cover their legs decently.

My finished 1920s swimsuit.

My finished 1920s swimsuit.

I think this is decent enough!

For more pictures of swimming in the past see my Pinterest board ‘A Swim‘.

I’m also rather pleased with how it turned out. The purple bias binding I added could be a nod in the direction of suffragette colours too, especially since there is green and white in the background as well 🙂

I did have to tweak the pattern a bit. I changed the neckline to fit the art for the last challenge (this might be the reason why I then had to put a pleat in the front as otherwise it fell off the shoulders and then I might be arrested even now!!) and I also made both the skirt and the legs shorter, the legs by about 6″ and the skirt by 3″, but that could look longer or shorter if I wore it lower or higher on my waist.

The Challenge: #11 Politics of Fashion

Fabric: <1m of the same wool as last time

Pattern: a copy of an original pattern from ‘Mode Pratique’ from my favourite ebay seller (her blog)

Year: 1924, May 3rd to be precise!

Notions: thread, cotton bias binding and a button.

How historically accurate is it?  Not sure, it is wool as called for by the pattern, but possibly a little thicker than it should be. Bias binding and a sewing machine are fine for the 1920s, but I just sewed it how I sew rather than checking if I used period techniques. Pattern is original.

Hours to complete: I didn’t count again, only a few.

First worn: Just for photos

Total cost: <£10.00 for the skirt, £26 for the whole outfit including pattern, fabric and notions.

Now I just need to try it out! Where’s the water?

Ready to dive, but no water yet!

Ready to dive, but no water yet!

Who knew how political swimsuits would turn out to be? And that’s long before the bikini.

Entry filed under: Hobbies. Tags: .

HSF 10: Art Suffragette for a Day

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. timthepoet  |  June 18, 2014 at 7:41 AM

    Nice pictures of the swimsuit.

    • 2. knotrune  |  June 18, 2014 at 10:33 AM

      Well you would say that, given that you took them 😛

  • 3. ette  |  June 19, 2014 at 5:07 PM

    Thank you for this post! The skirt looks really great with your bathing suit, I am curious to hear about your experiments to swim with it.
    And thank you for this historical overview. Even though it may be possible to swim in this victorian bathing suits, I am not sure if the ladies wearing these really wanted to. I would imagine it being more likely that they just sat at the beach, maybe wading in the water. But as real sports were not lady-like, I am not sure if swimming was. But I have to say I really don’t know, so I am curiously waiting for your versions of these suits!
    love, ette

  • 4. Julia - Aberrant Crochet  |  November 28, 2015 at 6:22 PM

    What an interesting article! Thanks for sharing this bit of historical insight!

  • 5. witness2fashion  |  September 5, 2016 at 11:29 PM

    I’ve worn a few modern (1960s or later) wool swimsuits, and they were OK when fully submerged, but if you try to pop out of the water and sit on the side of the pool in yours, prepare for a lot of extra weight. (You might want to weigh your suit dry and wet, just for the fun of knowing the result.) Also, my wool & elastic knit suits always sagged at the butt from the water in them! Isn’t it amazing to think of all the Olympic swimming medals won by people wearing wool bathing suits?

    • 6. knotrune  |  September 7, 2016 at 8:53 AM

      Yeah, I do worry about the wet weight, I still haven’t worn it yet 🙂 I now think this wool is too thick. As a woven it shouldn’t sag too much though, it would just be me sagging under the weight! I guess when everyone has the same encumbrance it is fair, and they would have been used to it, the technology of sports clothes has had a huge influence of increased speeds.

      • 7. witness2fashion  |  September 7, 2016 at 8:26 PM

        I ought to ask The Vintage Traveler. I bet she has washed some of the vintage swimming suits in her collection.

  • 8. Jackie  |  September 8, 2016 at 4:38 AM

    So I thought you were perhaps kidding when you said you would make your own swimsuit in response to my last post but I’m just now catching up on your fortnight challenges and wow! I’ve attempted knitting a simple scarf many times and have tragically failed so the fact that you can make bras, swimsuits, trim hats, and all other manner of things – seriously impressive. What a cool challenge!


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