A bathing suit made of…wool? That’s right. In the 1920s, the idea of going to the beach and actually getting into the water to swim was still relatively new. Functionality in swimwear was not as important as fashion, so the prevailing theory was that wool would help keep you warm. As swimming for recreation came into vogue in the 1920s, makers of swimwear had to adapt and make swimwear for, well, swimming.
Jantzen revolutionized swimwear material with a stretchy ribbed jersey that fit more snug than regular jersey and was certainly more comfortable than thick wool. Both men’s and women’s swimsuits were similar in design and material. Read my 1920s men’s swimwear history article here.
Better materials made it easier to swim, but it also showed off more of a woman’s curves. Necklines dropped to deep boat necks or V-necks. Arm holes grew bigger to make real swimming easier. Colors were as vibrant as other ’20s sportswear — red, blue, orange, black, gray, and Kelly green with contrasting stripes. An optional white rubber belt helped keep the two piece suit from floating up in the water.
A swim cap helped keep a gal’s bobbed hair from losing its shape. The idea of swimming was very popular — the actual sport was limited to serious athletes. Most beach goers merely played by the water, waded, and maybe doggy paddled around in shallow waters.
An “aviator” style rubber swim cap fit as tight as a cloche hat with an optional strap under the chin in the mid to late 1920s. Prior to that, pleated caps or scarf wraps were used to keep hair dry. They were many designs from simple to dramatic with big bows, fringe, and buckles. They were made in bright colors such as red, blue, green, or natural rubber (see the image at the top of the page). While swimsuits were plain, swim caps were fun.
As swimwear also became shorter, women had to be on the lookout for the beach police who patrolled the area with measuring tape in hand. These skin censors would measure the distance between the bottom of a woman’s bathing suit and her knee. Too much bare skin could result in a hefty $10 fine, or even being hauled off to jail! Most of these modesty rules were lifted by the mid twenties — too many women simply didn’t care to follow them and far too many men enjoyed the new view.
Modest women still could wear the swim dress –– a longer skirt over attached shorts. However, Jantzen created a very popular suit in 1921 that looked like it was two pieces. If you were to sew a tank top onto a pair of swim trunks today, you would have something similar to the Jantzen suit.
Still, swim trunks or skirts typically could not be higher than a few inches above the knee and women were often required to wear black stockings and shoes. At first, stockings were rolled down to above the knee, but they kept on rolling down to ankle level. “Why wear them at all?” was the attitude by the early ’30s.
As the decade continued, swimsuits became more interesting. Striped patterns were knit into the the designs, the fit grew tighter, and the length even shorter.
Swim Shoes and Boots
What about footwear? Some women simply wore flat street shoes over their rolled stockings, but the truly fashionable wore their beach boots. Lace up boots rising above the calf were the most common in the early twenties. They look like men’s wrestling shoes today.
By the mid twenties, lower beach slippers made of duck canvas resembled flat Mary Janes or Oxfords. All-rubber slip-on shoes in bright colors were another new item and were best suited for rocky beaches, rivers, and lakes. People of the twenties used natural waters more than pools — they were, after all, less polluted back then. I have some links to 20s canvas shoes here.
1920s Bathing Beauty Contests
Sexiness in swimwear evolved slowly. Catalina Swimwear pushed a few boundaries with its backless Rib Stitch 5 bathing suit, but what really seemed to join the idea of sexy and swimwear was the growth of bathing beauty pageants.
In 1921, the Atlantic City Business Men’s League took the advice of a local newspaper columnist and added a bathing beauty completion to its post-Labor Day Atlantic City Fall Frolic. Women in bathing suits competed against other women from other cities who earned the trip to Atlantic City by winning local competitions. Catalina was one of the earliest sponsors of this contest, which morphed into the Miss American pageant in 1940.
Bathing beauty contests were not only found on the East Coast. In California towns like Newport Beach, women carrying parasols in one-piece tank suits and beach boots literally paraded up and down the boardwalks.
Not all of the California bathing beauties were there just to get a tan or win a beauty contest though. For some, it was the road to stardom. It worked for Carole Lombard. Before she became an acting legend and wife to Clark Gable, Lombard appeared on film as one of Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties in 1928.
Swimsuits – Make or Buy Your Own
Making a men’s or women’s 1920s swimsuit isn’t too difficult. Find an extra long cotton ribbed tank top and a pair of biking shorts. Add stripes and edging using binding tape, or buy a “ringer tank top” with contrast edging already attached. You can also paint on stripes (see below). Add a white elastic belt and swim cap, sunglasses, and you’re done!
This tutorial shows you how to make a swimsuit from a men’s T-shirt (sewing required).
Learn more about…
1920s parasols – the best accessory for the beach
Shop Women’s 1920s Swimsuits
Ready-made 1920s style swimsuits are difficult to find. There are quite a few sewing and knitting patterns available if you are talented enough to make your own. Otherwise, I look for simple swim dresses with contrasting white stripes, swim rompers, or two piece sets with a long top such as those at Modli. Here are some 1920s style swimsuits and patterns.