The most primitive swimwear in earlier civilizations meant you stripped down to your birthday suit. In the Middle Ages, one of the seven agilities that knights must prove was swimming with armor. This, like most swimming at the times, was performed in the nude.

Because swimming was done in a state of "undress," it was less and less popular as societies became more conservative heading into the early modern period. Swimming was then considered an activity engaged in by persons of questionable morality. Unless you had legitimate health reasons for seeking a cooling and refreshing dip into the sea, swimming was a no-no. Beach vacations were almost unheard of before the mid-to-late 1800s. Prior to that, the ocean was a scary thing that invoked both fear and anxiety—not relaxation.

1850s bathing suit

Bathing dress, Harper’s Magazine, 1858

Much of the original swimwear, notably that of the Victorian era, was heavy and cumbersome, and likely dangerous when wet. While we may gasp at some of the attire found at today’s beaches, it’s safe to say that the bathing costumes and beach practices of recent history may have you scratching your head just a bit.

1890s bathing suit

The picture above by photographer Wilhelm Dreesen, is possibly the earliest known photograph of a bathing suit. The unknown woman is seen exiting what were then known as ‘bathing machines’—curtained or wooden carts parked into the water, and used for changing from regular clothing into beachwear. 

bathing beach policeman

According to the Library of Congress, in 1922, Col. Sherrell, Superintendent of Public Buildings and Grounds issued an order that bathing suits at the Washington bathing beach must not be over six inches from the top of the knee. Bill Norton, dubbed the "bathing beach policeman" is shown taking some measurements in Washington, DC.

women in bathing suits in 1920s

Hoquiam, Washington was built on lumber. During the first quarter of the 20th century, Grays Harbor was considered the biggest lumber-producing and lumber-shipping region in the world. So it seemed perfectly natural (to somebody) that they should begin making bathing suits out of all that lumber to promote the wood industry to the world. “Wood Week” was born in 1929, and with it, the Spruce Girls, sporting the suits made from wood veneer sheets. Sure, they may have looked rather stylish at the time, but doesn’t it warp?

women at beach fully clothed

These two fine ladies, photographed by William M Vander Weyde at Atlantic beach in 1905, were not about to have their decent morality questioned, they didn’t care how hot it was!

This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine September 2017 issue.

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