Spending time swimming is something most of us expect to do when we go on vacation. Many wealthy and upper-middle-class households even have pools that can be used on a daily basis. That wasn’t the case 100 years ago. (This post is a companion piece to Melina Druga’s WWI Trilogy, Angel of Mercy, Those Left Behind and Adjustment Year, available wherever eBooks are sold.)
People could only swim at public pools and in natural bodies of water.
Victorian Swimming Lessons
During the Victorian era, people were taught how to swim on land. They believed those who learned swimming techniques before hitting the water would be better prepared. This method also was thought to instill confidence in individuals who were frightened of the water.
Convenience was yet another reason for the popularity of this method, as few schools had pools. The dry method could be taught anywhere, and the lessons were an ideal form of exercise during the winter.
Students were suspended by wires, laid stomach down on stools or used swimming machines for their lessons.
Lessons also included how to rescue a drowning person.
Competitive swimming began in the 19th century, but the sport was male dominated. There were female swimming championships in the 1800s, but when the modern Olympics began in 1896, all the competitors were men. Women weren’t allowed to compete until the 1912 games.
The first swimsuits were wool and mimicked everyday clothing. They were dangerous, as they often became waterlogged.
They were, however, modest, especially when it came to women’s suits. Suits remained this way for decades.
“Pants and shorts were worked into bulky one-pieces, which allowed women a modicum of function in the water, but the outfits were still absurdly layered,” The Week explains. “Knee-length bloomers were worn under one-pieces that were covered by an apron-like piece of fabric wrapped around the waist. The more prudent women added black tights to the ensemble.”
It wasn’t until 1905 that competitive swimmer Annette Kellerman simplified women’s suits to match men’s. The style was commonplace by the 1920s.
Here are some examples of early 20th century swimming costumes:
Want to see more swim costumes? Visit the Swimsuits section of my Pinterest board Women’s Fashion: 1890-1920. A few men’s suits also can be found on my Men’s Fashion: 1890-1920 board.
Updated: 22 October 2020