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A bathing suit, from Metropolitant Museum

A cotton bathing suit, with pants and a separate belted dress, c. 1900-1910, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

With an Edwardian beach day planned in the height of the Australian summer, making a bathing suit seemed the most sensible thing to do these holidays!

“Modern” swimwear – that is, the swimwear of the last 200 years – has only been “invented” as the popularity of recreational swimming has increased. This increase in popularity has been influenced by the availability of transport, the prevalence of travel, and the increases in disposable income of everyday people. Hence, swimming has only become popular by the masses since the 18th and 19th centuries.

My interest in bathing suits was centred more around the region of 1880 to 1910, which fit more closely with my Edwardian-themed beach day. During this era bathing suits consisted of baggy pants, a top and a skirt in some combination. Sometimes the pants were separate and were then covered with a belted dress. Other times the pants and top were all-in-one, and then there was a separate skirt that buttoned on over the top. They could be made of wool, cotton or occasionally linen.

Bathing suit, an all-in-one pants-and-top with a button-on skirt, c. 1885, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A woollen bathing suit, with all-in-one pants-and-top and a button-on skirt, c. 1885, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The closures were most often buttons down the centre front, and elastic or ties were used for the pants. Bathing suits were made in a great variety of colours, although the most popular seem to have been dark blue with white trim, and also dark blue with red trim. The trim was generally made from twill tape and could be quite elaborate.

Often bathing shoes were also worn, along with a bathing cap and stockings, though these seem to reduce in frequency as the 1910s approach.

My initial thought was that through the course of this era (1880-1910) bathing suits would have progressively got shorter and more revealing, but during each of these decades I have found examples of pants that were well below the knee as well as above the knee. Similarly, I have found that sleeves of the tops/dresses could be longish or shortish, and the lengths of the dresses/skirts could be below the knee or up to mid-thigh. My conclusion is that through this time period, swimwear remained largely the same, and the more drastic changes occurred either during or after World War 1, but certainly had occurred by the 1920s.

Women on Collaroy Beach, NSW.

Women in bathing suits on Collaroy Beach, NSW, 1908. I love seeing real women wearing their historical clothes in the era!

I decided, after much deliberation, to go with a pair of baggy pants and then a belted dress to go over the top. I also was keen to have a bathing cap to wear.

I used a dark blue cotton broadcloth, with white polyester grosgrain ribbon. Buttons were just plain white plastic ones.

Please excuse the poor quality of the photos, as I tried not to use a flash so that the colour contrast would be a bit better. Some have turned out a little blurry.

The Pants

Pattern

I thought the easiest way to go about making pants quickly was to use an existing pattern for culottes and then cut them short at the knee. I used McCalls 6788 from my teenage stash of patterns. And since I love the usefulness of pockets in costumes (even bathing costumes!), I decided to add pockets on each side.

The pattern pieces, shortened to be just below knee length.

The pattern pieces, shortened to be just below knee length.

Construction Steps

Since the pattern comes with instructions, I have not gone into much detail here.

1:  As with most pants, I sewed the inside leg seams first and then the crotch seam.

2: Then one half of each pocket was sewn onto each outside hip seam. Once this was done the outside leg seams were sewn, right sides together, including around the pockets (but leaving a space for a hand to enter the pocket).

3: The top edge of the pants was folded down to form a casing, and two rows of elastic were threaded through the casings.

The casing is folded down in the inside and pinned ready to sew. You can see the pockets in this view.

The casing is folded down in the inside and pinned ready to sew. You can see the pockets in this view.

4: A strip of bias binding was sewn just under knee-level and was then used for a casing for elastic. Two rows of ribbon trim were attached below this casing, on the hemmed edge of the pants.

The finished pants

The finished pants

A pattern for a woman's bathing suit, c. 1900, from Cutter's Guide.

A pattern for a woman’s bathing suit, c. 1900, from The Cutter’s Practical Guide.

The Dress

Pattern

I used a historical pattern from The Cutter’s Practical Guide (1900) as – well – a guide.

It is a little obscure, but this pattern can be used a number of different ways. You can have separate pants (right upper corner), and either long or short sleeves (right lower corner), and a detachable skirt (left lower corner). The top left corner shows a pattern for an all-in-one, but it can be altered to have a yoke front or to be a dress, which is shown in the dotted lines. The only shaping in it is under the arms, in the form of a dart.

I decided to cut a front panel (with the centre front on a selvedge edge) and a back panel (on the fold). All shaping was under the arms. I also did petal sleeves as an interesting inclusion.

Construction Steps

1: The side seams and shoulder seams were sewn. This dress has virtually no shaping, except for a little at the side seams.

The front view, showing the centre front pinned and the side and shoulder seams sewn. This dress has almost no shaping except for at the side seams.

The front view, showing the centre front pinned and the side and shoulder seams sewn. This dress has almost no shaping except for at the side seams.

bathing dress construction back

The back view, showing the centre back markings and waistline markings for where the belt will be attached.

2: I used a tutorial on making petal sleeves to help me with the sleeves.

This shows the pattern shape of the sleeves. The skinny bit in the middle goes under the arm.

This shows the pattern shape of the sleeves. The skinny bit in the middle goes under the arm. The two wider parts on each side cross over at the top of the arm. (There is an underarm seam joining the two halves of the sleeve, but it is hard to see.)

Once I had drafted the pattern piece and cut it out 4 times (2 for each sleeve), I sewed the bottom edge, right sides together. Once this was turned the right way, one row of ribbon trim was sewn to it. The sleeve was then set into the armhole.

The sleeve finished, viewed from the front.

The sleeve finished, viewed from the front.

3: The collar was draped on the stand and then cut out. My collar had a centre back seam, and so the pattern piece below was cut out 4 times.

The collar pattern piece, with the bottom edge being the centre front, and the top edge meeting at the centre back.

The collar pattern piece, with the bottom edge being the centre front, and the top edge meeting at the centre back.

The collar was sewn right sides together along all edges (except the neck edge). Then a row of ribbon trim was attached to the finished edge. The collar was then attached to the neck of the dress, with the raw edges folded into the collar and handsewn down.

4: The button placket was made with a facing, sewn to the centre front right sides together. The facing was then folded to the inside and sewn down.

The button placket at the centre front.

The button placket at the centre front, showing the facing folded to the inside and pinned ready to sew down.

The dress was hemmed and then trimmed with ribbon. Buttons and buttonholes were then sewn.

The dress completed, laid flat to show the shape.

The dress with buttons attached, showing the trim coming along the hem and up each side of the button placket.

5: The belt was made from a two strips of material, sewn right sides together and turned the right way. After pressing, ribbon trim was sewn to the finished edges. The belt was attached to the dress at the waistline at the centre back.

The dress all finished!

The dress all finished!

The Cap

Pattern

I had no real pattern for this, but used some of the extant pictures I had found as a guide. I used two large circles of fabric, 17 inches in diameter.

Construction Steps

1: I started by sewing the two layers around the outside of the circle, right sides together (leaving a gap to turn it the right way). Then the circle was turned the right way and pressed.

2: The casing for the elastic was sewn, leaving a small gap near where the “turning” gap was (above) for threading the elastic through.

3: Before the elastic was threaded, two rows of ribbon were sewn around the outer edges of the circle, once again leaving a small gap where the “turning” gap was.

The circle has the casing sewn and the trim attached. You can see the small stitching gaps made to allow the elastic to be threaded in.

The circle has the casing sewn and the trim attached. You can see the small stitching gaps made to allow the elastic to be threaded in.

4: The elastic was threaded through the casing and all gaps sewn up.

The bathing cap completed!

The bathing cap completed!

And here is a picture of me with it on in front of the bathing boxes at Brighton Beach, Melbourne.

1900s-bathing-costume

My new bathing costume on its first day out!

Hopefully it won’t be the last time I get to wear this ensemble!

Related Posts

Making a Victorian Fan Skirt

Parenting Advice from 1910

An Anne of Green Gables Dress

Sources and Relevant Links

History of Bathing Suits, by Victoriana

Image Source: A bathing suit, c. 1900-1910, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Image Source: A bathing suit, c. 1885, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Image Source: Women in bathing suits, 1908, from State Library of New South Wales

McCalls 6788, a 2 hour pants pattern, from Pinterest.

Pattern Diagram for a Womens Bathing Suit, c. 1900, from Vintage Connection

Two methods of Petal/Tulip Sleeve Drafting, by Style2Designer.

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