Yesterday I showed you my reproduction worsted wool Edwardian swimsuit. Everyone wanted to know if I actually swam in it, and if you could swim in it. Obviously I wondered this as well. The swimsuit was lovely to frolic on the beach on, but could it actually work as a swimsuit.
So I gave it a try!
My reproduction swimsuit was made from worsted wool serge, and consists of a jumpsuit with attached bloomers, and an overskirt. Both garments button down the front.
I chose to swim with bare legs and feet. While fashion plates generally show shoes and stockings there are enough period photographs that show wading women with swimsuits and bare lower limbs to make this equally plausible for a full swim.
For the first swim I jumped off a little dock at Hataitai/Evan’s Bay beach. It’s a popular swimming spot (as evinced by all the kids watching me), and very calm and safe, so a good place to try out the swimsuit.
My first mini swim showed:
- It’s definitely possible to swim in a worsted wool Edwardian swimsuit
- The swimsuit does seem to provide some additional insulation compared to a conventional modern swimsuit.
- The suit does hold a reasonable amount of water, but it dried off surprisingly quickly.
- Scarves do not stay on.
I would NOT want to do this in a woollen swimsuit (read about the difference between worsted and woollen fabrics here). Woollen wool would hold so much more water, which might not be an issue when in the water, but would make it much harder to get in and out of the water, particularly climbing a ladder, as I did.
I should note that I’m not a particularly good swimmer. I never took lessons: just learned by whatever sort of osmosis growing up in Hawaii does for your swimming skills. My friends who are very good swimmers have cheerfully gone into great detail about how bad my form is. If you’re ever caught in a riptide you’d better hope there is someone other than me on the beach!
After the first mini swim, I tried a longer one: jumping off the dock, and swimming around the curve of the coast to the little sandy beach. It’s a distance of a bit over 100m (very rough guess).
The longer swim I gave me a better idea of how my Edwardian swimsuit, with its bloomers and skirt, fared.
Thoughts on the longer swim:
- Over the course of the swim I definitely felt the additional drag caused by all the extra fabric. I wasn’t nearly as streamlined as I would be in a modern suit, and swimming took more effort.
- I also felt the constriction caused by the sleeves around my arms: it was harder to take a proper stroke.
- The swimsuit definitely provided a little extra insulation. Very nice in the brisk Wellington water.
- Would the extra effort and fatigue caused by the swimsuit mean I’m burning more calories in less time?
- The swimsuit seemed to shrink or bind slightly at the waist as I swam (perhaps from all the water being held in the wool), and it chafed at the waistband. I’ve since washed and dried it, and tried it on again, and it doesn’t seem to have shrunk: the tighter feeling is only when wet.
Many thanks to my wonderful friend ‘Priscilla’ for taking the video and the photos (you can hear her commentary in the background), and for Mr D, who entertained Priscilla’s baby & 5 year old while we took these. (No thanks to the baby who cried when I tried to hold her, and then delightedly let Mr D hold her for a whole hour, and then cried when she had to leave him. 🙁 It’s been two weeks and he’s still bragging about that…)
Hahaha, that’s a wonderful account of your swimming adventure. I love that you were able to get a video as well as pictures! 🙂 This type of exploratory history is fascinating! Also, I love how all the kids on the wharf were looking at you with ‘what-in-the-world-is-happening-right-now’ faces!
This is lovely! I’ve often wondered if swimming were even possible in one of those. Thank you for the courage to find out! (And the generosity to share it with us! )
Thanks for sharing this! It’s fascinating! 🙂
That just looks so right! Great to know.
I wonder if gussets under the arms were a thing? That would reduce the binding when you stretched you arms out. I’m no expert, but women would possibly have been doing side-stroke and breast-stroke – you still need to extend those arms. (When I was a gel, those were the strokes I was taught – over-arm was something I never quite perfected.)
A delight! Love the kids!
Yes, crawl was still a relatively new thing and was mainly for competitive swimmers. Most women would have considered it a little too showy and splashy. Breaststroke and side stroke would indeed have been the main ones used, of those still known today
I used to have the privilege of swimming with a wonderful woman who’d been a medalist in the 1924 Olympics, and the British long-distance record holder around the same time. (The distance competition was held in the Thames and it was so cold that nobody completed the course, but she got furthest. ) She taught me a couple of other strokes that would have been familiar to the Edwardians but are now largely forgotten: one-armed crawl, which is half way between crawl and sidestroke; and old English backstroke, which uses butterfly-like arms and breaststroke legs.
Oh my! That is so cool! Thanks for sharing!
And yes, what a lovely adventure. Looking great.
Thank you for posting about your little experiment. I’d always wondered about the practicality of actual swimming in a bathing suit like the one you wore here, and you’ve answered it in the most practical way possible.
This is wonderful, thanks for sharing! I also loved your post on the difference between worsted and woolens– thanks for linking that too.
Hah! So fun! Great to see these bathers weren’t completely ineffective in the water. And, I love that the latest speed compression swimsuits have gone back to having coverage up to the knees in a weird twist of retro/physics/design! 😀
I always wondered how it would be to swim in a suit like that!!
Were they all made of wool back then or were there some in cotton?
By 1907 you see them in cotton as well, though wool was still common. By the 1910s there are silk versions, though I haven’t been able to determine if you were actually meant to swim in those.
Thanks for doing this! You know we are all wondering…
Now that I think about it, I seem to recall seeing a lot of wading out into the sea in those types of suits, and I’d be willing to put money on the fact that jumping off a wharf wasn’t a usual occurrence for a lady. Lol…
I wonder if the kerchief would stay on if you waded in? Or if it just comes off in the water no matter what. Super interesting about the drag and the tightness about the waist! I liked how you got out and showed us what it was like after wet as well. It held it’s shape really well, and didn’t seem to cling! Really interesting.
Also, I’ve grown up in Michigan, so while year round swimming isn’t done by anyone but the crazies in the Polar bear club, it’s unusual to find someone around here who doesn’t know how to swim, and you’d put my swimming to shame any day. 😀 😀
Definitely my kerchief would stay on if I was just wading. While most postcards and images do just show wading, there are enough accounts, and visual records, of women engaging in full swims to make it clear that it did happen – particularly somewhere like NZ, with lots of coast and a climate that encourages swimming. Since I’m in NZ, it makes sense for me to use it as the basis for my living history research 🙂
With apologies, I enjoyed that bit about your husband gloating… hahaha. All too familiar.
Hehe, I understand! I’d do it to him if it was me!
my friend asked (she really did lol) if the woolen fabric wouldnt be itchy for a bathing suit. i realized i dont even know what if anything is worn underneath.
thanks for another fun blog
I didn’t wear anything underneath. The few mentions I can find seem to back this up. It certainly makes sense: cotton or linen underlayers would hold water, and chill you down, and basically nullify the advantages of the wool.