19th Century, 20th Century

Bathing beauties of 1906 from the Girls Own Paper

Are you thinking ahead to the ‘By the Sea’ challenge for the Historical Sew Fortnightly? I certainly am!

I’d love to make a full, ridiculous, Edwardian or Victorian bathing costume, or a Regency chemise for sea bathing at Bath or Brighton, but I feel I ought to make something late ’20s or early ’30s, because it’s been on my to-do list for over a year (for two Art Deco Weekends), and (more importantly) I already have the fabric.  So I should probably be good, and do that, and save the super silliness for later.

But, oh, the temptation!

My desire for silly turn-of-the-century bathers is further fueled by this delight from the collection of 1906 Girls Own Papers I just bought.  Look at these bathing belles:

What to wear by the sea, 1906, Girls Own Paper

How a girl should dress for the sea, 1906, Girl’s Own Paper

Aren’t those bathing frocks fabulous?  I’m particularly taken with the model who is bending over to adjust her hem.  I love the petal sleeves, and the simpler, shaped rather than gathered, skirt.  The spotty kerchief is pretty cute too.  And the images are fantastically detailed.  The lone maiden with her rope to cling on to, so that she can venture out into a rough sea more safely (growing up in Hawaii I was fascinated to read of people swimming with ropes – it’s such a foreign concept in the sheltered tropical waters I was used to).  The bathing carriages that persisted into the 20th century for the more modest bathers in the background of the larger image.  And the damsel in the light-coloured suit with her net.  What was she hoping to catch?

I’ve been reading Sarah Kennedy’s Vintage Swimwear:  A History of Twentieth-Century Fashions, and it’s driving me absolutely barmy. She identifies every single one of her early 20th century bathing images as showing ‘extreme’ or ‘immodest’ fashion, due to the leg exposure, or the arm exposure, or the lack of stockings.  If so, why only show these images?  How can it be a history if it only presents an extreme side of the story?  Some of the images show costumes every bit as covered up as the ones in the fashion sketch above, and since the Girl’s Own Paper was a very conservative, religious, moral publication, one can assume that the bathing costumes they suggest would be quite proper.  In addition, informal early 20th century beach photography (not the posed glamour shots she presents) show that most people actually wore far less to the beach than the glamour images.  Out of the city centers, and away from beaches with morality laws, men and women bathed together with bare feet, and in very simple garments.  Yes, there were beaches with morality laws, but the very fact that they were written about makes them the exception, not the rule.

And she goes on and on about the drowning deaths that were caused by the heavy bathing costumes, without being able to identify a single case.  Yes, early 20th century swimsuit reform campaigners cited them as a reason to ditch the heavy wool gowns, but early corset reformers cited all the deaths from corsets, and we haven’t been able to identify a single confirmed case of death-by-corsetry  (on the other hand, there are at least two cases in New Zealand alone where corsets saved women’s lives when they were shot at or stabbed).

Then she talks about the practice of bathing in chemises in Regency England being so enticing that it lead women to dampen their evening gowns to imitate the effect, and we know that dampened evening gowns was something that was done in only a few instances, by only the most fast and fashion forward of women.   To repeat it is as accurate as to suggest that all women in the 2000s wore nipple-revealing bustier cups which were ripped off on a regular basis, a la Janet Jackson, or that every woman with powdered hair in the 18th century had rats and mice living in her coiffure, just since one incident was reported, once.

I hate poor research when just a little critical thinking would present a much more accurate picture.

Right.  Rant over.

Let’s look at the pretty picture again, shall we?

How a girl should dress for the sea, 1906, Girl's Own Paper

How a girl should dress for the sea, 1906, Girl’s Own Paper

Ah, happiness returns.

Update:  And yet more happiness!  Look at this amazing image that a friend shared with me after reading this post (and is graciously allowing me to share with you).  She took it in Llanbadarn church yard in Wales.  Best memorial stone ever!

Llanbadarn church yard, image courtesy of LA


  1. Aww, they’re adorable! I’m looking forward to this challenge too. I don’t think I could go swimming in the ocean though, the sea water here is cold enough to give you hypothermia all year round.
    Maybe I could interpret this as something to wear when swimming in a lake.

    That book does sound extremely annoying. Have you read “the complete history of costume and fashion”? Ugh, just thinking about it makes me shudder.

    • Anything that you can wear to swim is fine for this challenge 😉 Swimsuits do not discriminate between oceans, lakes and pools!

      Who is ‘The Complete History of Costume & Fashion’ by?

      • It’s by Bronwyn Cogsgrave. Truly an awful book, full of contradictions, lies, and pictures without proper captions. She didn’t even quote her sources!

  2. Daniel says

    The problem here, is that you have a journalist setting themselves up as a fashion historian. So for them EVERYTHING is a Head! Line! Shock! A Baby Ate My Dingo! Great! Big! Massive! Deal! with little if any basis in actual factual research. That’s not to say that journalists can’t write good fashion history, but then again… journalists publish pictures of men’s 18th century court suits and call them sack back gowns, or slavishly proclaim that Mary Quant invented the miniskirt (she almost certainly didn’t) and hot-pants (she absolutely definitely didn’t) or that before Dior came along everyone was wearing skimpy straight cut dresses without full skirts (no they weren’t) or that all 19th century women fainted all over the place in 18 inch corseted waists, or that before Chanel, nobody ever wore a black dress…. or, or, or, or, or…..

    • Oh lord. I hate the 18th inch waist myth, but not as much as I hate the ‘Chanel invented black/stripes/jersey/pants/the bra/suits/couture/camellias/pearl necklaces/suntans’ myths. (this book includes the ‘Chanel invented trousers for women’ and ‘Chanel invented jersey’ variants. Chanel invented herself. Period. Everything else she just, at the best, popularised or claimed credit for.

      • Daniel says

        Whereas with Quant, we have similar “Quant invented” stories – miniskirts/hotpants/tights/body makeup/vitamin pills/this/that/and best of all, Quant claims to have invented the duvet cover (I was at a symposium where she, a guest speaker, informed everyone she had done so!)

  3. Daniel says

    OH MY GOD, and she contributed to “Vintage Fashion”. I could tell you a lovely little story about one of the co-authors on that book who is, and I say it with point blank, fully documented accuracy, a bare-faced plagiarist who has physically lifted whole swatches of text directly from museum websites and even from Wikipedia in at least one of her other books. This is from someone who really should know better.

    • Oh dear. I don’t think I’ve read Vintage Fashion. Now I’m afraid to!

      (and now I really, really want to meet you in person!)

    • You have the most amazing family photos! The beach outfit in the 2nd is fabulous – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a posed studio portrait of a couple in beach gear before. We can assume it would be a little more formal and dressed up then what she would actually wear in the water.

      And the 2nd perfectly proves my point. No shoes, no stockings, and very simple togs for the oldest.

      Thank you so much for sharing!

  4. I have something that could cheer you up a bit more, I hope!
    It’s a film clip from 1911 showing men and women swimming, splashing, laughing and loving the camera in a popular seaside resort in Southern Sweden.

    I love everything about this clip, but mostly that we get to see so many different kinds of bathing suits (watch out for the man, that looks a bit like Lenin, at 1:40, sporting the 1911 equivalent to speedos!). Stripes were apparently very poplar with both sexes.


    • Yes indeed, that does cheer me up a great deal! What a fantastic clip! Such a great range of swimwear, and you really get a view of what people wore, both in the sea and along it. I missed Lenin, but I did catch 1911 Borat at the 3.25 mark.

      Stripes were so popular we’d better not let SK see it or she’d write about family fun day at Alcatraz 😉

      Thank you so much for sharing!

      • Lenin is wearing a cap and awfully skimpy trunks (lower 1/2 of the screen, partially behind the arm of the man in the white trunks).

  5. Elise says

    You know, those radical stories are what piqued my interest in textile history at age 6–and later acceptance of reality much later. I know I should be ashamed at liking those inaccuracies, but they’re sweet because they lifted me out of my life at the time and into different worlds.

    And they make fantastic gossip. But I think I much prefer accuracy and “real” life.

    • The inaccuracies bug me because they aren’t necessary. Fashion history is full of real fantastic gossip, and radical stories. There really WERE women who were arrested for wearing ‘skimpy’ swimwear, and I see no problem with covering their story, but I do object to whitewashing the rest – to not pointing out that there were hundreds of beaches across America where it wouldn’t have been an issue.

      And why do we keep repeating the (totally unproven) ‘corsets killed women’ stories, when we could repeat the (far more exciting, at least to my eyes) ‘women is shot by disgruntled ex-employee and bullet bounces off her corset’ story, which is TRUE.

      I love the crazy stories, but getting them wrong just does history, and us, a disservice.

      • Elise says

        You are right–the real and true is often better and so much more satisfying. I also hate inaccuracies and conflation and exaggeration with the intent to shock.

        Like I said–those stories were just the start. I was six (or seven) so reading or hearing stories where women of the past were showing too much skin was shocking to the girl raised in a house where ‘modesty’ was important.

        You bring up a great term: Whitewashing. That’s a major problem we have in the popular conceptions of social science (like textiles or linguistics). And you are right that it is best to get rid of it as fast as we can.

        So…when is your book coming out? (Need an editor?)

  6. Why not write us a more accurate book? You surely have the research experience to do it, and the love of fashion to do it well.
    The everday details are what I find most fascinating – what did the girl-next-door wear for all occassions?

    • Oh boy. That’s quite a compliment, and a big ask. I guess I haven’t written the more accurate book because I can’t decide which one to write! And when I do, I’ll have a Phd proposal to write too, because as long as I do the book I should write the Phd, right?

  7. Wanda/Dawn says

    I’m thinking of a bathing suit for my beach project. When did ladies start wearing suits like the ones above and was there a period that they did wear stockings for modesty? Was there a time period that said bare legs for swimming was OK? Or was it a case of “it depends on the persons age, comfort and the codes of the beach in question”? My interests are more in the Victorian Era than the Edwardian Era that these pictures come from.

  8. love it, i would wear those suits now to stroll on the beach in Santa Cruz.

    And I would soooooooo buy a fashion history book written by the Dreamstress.

  9. Loving the Pinterest board! It’s kind of interesting to see some of the bathing suits from the 1905-ish era look so much like Girl Scout uniforms from the same time period. I always wondered where those ranked on the “scandalous” scale!

  10. LadyD says

    I’ve never felt comfortable in bathing suits. there’s just too much…on show. But I love these ones. I’d go for a paddle down the seafront if I had a proper victorian/edwardian swimsuit and little tie up shoes.

  11. I have a photo somewhere of my great grandmother at the beach, not in specific swimming gear but all the ladies had their lower legs showing and not a ONE had shaved legs : ) I’ve always wanted to make a bathing outfit like the 1906 ones you show, just of the fun of it!

    • Sounds like fun! Yep, no shaved legs until WWII, when women shaved their legs to fake stockings. And no shaved underarms until at least that date either.

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