Collecting Vintage Swimsuits

If itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny bikinis (polka dotted or otherwise) fill your heart with dread then join those who look back with longing to a time of demure bathing beauties in flattering one-pieces.

Vintage swimwear has a growing band of admirers; some collect pieces for their history and visual appeal. Others seek out garments that can actually be worn – although the chemicals in modern pools make lounging rather than swimming lengths a wiser choice to prevent damage. If you have managed to find a piece from any of the coveted makers such as DeWeese, Catalina or Jantzen, or have an early piece it’s probably safer to keep it completely dry.

At the moment the 1950s are popular (a trend that echoes the vogue for burlesque and the fashion for playsuits and shorts), but swimsuits have a long history, one that traces the path of women’s liberation. As author, Sarah Kennedy, says, “The bathing costume is a perfect social barometer. No item of clothing has evolved as dramatically as the swimsuit.”

Women such as Annette Kellerman were willing to face prosecution to ensure that women could wear sensible clothing for physical activities such as swimming. Her fitted, knee-exposing suits may have scandalised, but swimming in a crinoline was downright dangerous.

The fight for rational swimwear was hard won (It’s a shame that it has come full circle to impractical thong bikinis.) And collecting swimwear from eras when form and function were in harmony is a wonderful way to dip your toe into the history of fashion and feminism.

Extract from the Independence issue.

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  • Lesley Watters on

    Swimsuits were still awful, made as they were from horrible wool, until the 1960’s.There were cotton suits too, but they were mainly sunsuits. I just have awful memories of trying to learn to swim with the school at outdoor unheated municipal pool in in a sodden, droopy itchy navy blue woolin the early ’60s. No wonder I never learnt.

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