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, well, for 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.
This 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 to making real swimming easier. Colors were as vibrant as other ’20s sportswear- red, blue, 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. An “aviator” style rubber swim cap fit as tight as a cloche hat with an optional strap under the chin. 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.
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 and that 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.
What about footwear? Some women simply wore flat street shoes over their 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 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.
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 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.
1920s Men’s Swimsuits
Women were not the only ones to get tighter swimsuits. Men’s swimwear also slimmed down to show off his new athletic body. In many ways, men’s and women’s suits were nearly identical. A deep cut ribbed wool tank top over a snug fitting pair of shorts. The “skirt” of the top came from knee-length a few years before to mid-thigh level. It was “too much” to raise the top any further, revealing men’s personal parts. Instead, more suit material was removed from under the arms and around the back- supposedly making it easier to swim but mostly to reveal more muscles.
By 1926, the two-piece, non-skirted, swimsuit made its debut. The top was often white or striped and the trunks a dark color. It was almost always worn with a belt, and the trunks came with belt loops. The separate pieces and lack of cover-up was quite shocking. Athletic swimmers were the first to wear them.
Men’s suits were also made of wool or ribbed cotton in very bright colors — red, purple, yellow, pale blue, navy blue, and the very popular orange. White or black stripes outlining the edges and skirt were equally common. White rubber belts were popular in the mid twenties — just like on the ladies’ swimsuits. Shoes were also nearly identical, with men in lace up flat Oxfords made of canvas or all rubber slip ins.
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 done!
This tutorial shows you how to make a swimsuit from a men’s T-shirt (sewing required).
For men, the above tank plus shorts works well, too. For a mid- to late-1920s style, look at a wrestling singlet also called a bodysuit or unitard. These one piece, snug fitting suits have the same silhouette as ’20s swimwear. I would choose cotton or Lycra, if you plan to swim in it. You may also want to order 1 or two sizes up to get a looser, less body building, more vintage look. These suits work well for 1920s strongman costumes too.
For a teens and early ’20s swimsuit that is boxier, I took a cotton Henley shirt and a pair of basic swim trunks and trimmed them in binding tape. You could also use a basic cotton striped T-shirt worn over a pair of trunks, too. Most ready-made 1920s swimsuit costumes are striped. See below.
Shop Women’s 1920s Swimsuits
For genuine vintage swimsuits shop at Glamour Surf
Shop Men’s 1920s Swimsuits
Make your own with a long tank top and shorts.
1920s Beach Parasols
All that fun in the sun made the suntan fashionable. CoCo Chanel claims she made it trendy for the wealthy to have a tan instead of it being a sign of poverty. Men and women played in the sun with little regard to sun damage. They wore colored glasses to shade their eyes and a sun hat if their hair was unsightly after a swim.
The parasol was a frequent item taken to the beach or more likely picked up from a vendor on the beach. They were fun, fashionable and trendy. Holding one and posing for the camera was something every young woman had to do. They had little to do with sun protection.
Fussy lace parasols of the Victorian age were replaced by the beautiful Oriental style oil or cotton paper parasols with short wood handles. The Asian or Art Deco designs are works of art. If it wasn’t for their popularity as a seaside souvenir, they would have gone out of fashion before 1920. As such, they stayed around till the 1930s.
Shop 1920s Parasols