Let’s Hit the Beach!

Bathing at Chautauqua, 1908, in swim suits popular in Isabella’s lifetime.


In 1960 Brian Hyland hit the top of the U.S. music charts with his song, Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.

The song, about a woman who was too shy to wear her new bikini on the beach, was an instant hit. Many women at the time identified with the song’s lyrics. Although the bikini had been popular in Europe for years, Americans were slow to adopt it, believing the tiny two-piece was too risqué to be worn in public.

Those who dared to wear a bikini on an American beach or at a public pool quickly found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Some American cities banned the two-piece swimsuits and issued citations to any woman caught wearing one.

Other cities skipped the citation process and immediately took women to jail for violating local decency laws. But even in more progressive areas of the country, modesty and fear made women reluctant to wear bikini swimwear.

It wasn’t until 1962 when Ursula Andress emerged from the surf in the popular James Bond movie Dr. No that opinions began to change.

The original 1962 movie post for Dr. No showing a bikini-clad woman.


A modified movie poster for Dr. No, displayed in movie theaters in conservative areas of America.


Helping turn the tide was a series of “beach party” movies produced in the early 1960s. They featured wholesome, fun-loving teenagers—like America’s sweetheart Annette Funicello—cavorting on beaches and arguing over boyfriends, all while wearing two-piece and bikini swim suits.

Movie poster for 1963’s Beach Party.


Movie poster for Bikini Beach, which hit American theaters in 1964.


Then, in 1964, Raquel Welch wore a deer-skin bikini in the movie One Million Years B.C. and caused a sensation. The result: the bikini instantly became must-have swim attire for women across the country.

The early 1960s wasn’t the first time Americans had contended with notions of risqué swimwear. The same thing happened at the turn of the 20th Century.

A new design for swimwear, from the Fashion Page of the July 25, 1897 issue of the Los Angeles Herald. Beneath the skirt was a pair of waist-to-knee bloomers.


Women’s swimwear in Isabella Alden’s time was designed to hide the woman’s body and protect her modesty. In fact, most public bathing areas at the time were segregated by gender.

From a summer fashion article showing a new style of bathing suit. The San Francisco Call, April 30, 1899.


While men boldly walked into the surf and swam freely, some municipalities confined women to specific areas of the beach.

And they required women be covered from head to toe at all times. Swimsuit designers expected women to swim in hats, leggings, bloomers, shoes, and puffy-sleeved dresses.

An 1896 swim suit made of mohair. From an article in the May 24, 1896 issue of the Salt Lake Herald.


And because those dresses were usually made of wool, they were heavy when they got wet and weighed women down. Even worse, the long skirts tangled in their legs, preventing women from doing little more than wading into the water.

That began to change in the early 1900s when a professional swimmer from Australia arrived in the United States. Her name was Annette Kellerman, and she brought with her a one-piece swimsuit she had created herself and wore in competitions.

Annette Kellerman in a 1907 photograph.


By American standards, Annette’s swimsuit was downright indecent. It showed way too much skin and it hugged the curves of her body. When Annette dared to wear it on a public beach in Boston in 1907, she was arrested for violating indecency laws.

Annette may have run afoul of Boston city ordinances, but she also fired the imagination of American swimwear designers.

By the following year stores carried new designs in swimwear fashion. Those new designs weren’t quite as revealing as Annette’s one-piece suit, but they were certainly more comfortable and practical.

A 1908 postcard for Atlantic City, New Jersey.


Gone were the heavy leggings; the new styles allowed ladies to bare their legs and lose their high-laced shoes. And the skirts were shorter; beneath them bloomers were replaced by fitted shorts that allowed women to move freely in the water.

A 1908 postcard for Atlantic City, New Jersey.


Many people didn’t take kindly to the new styles. Americans formed protests on beaches, and newspaper editorials decried the swim fashions as emblems of the breakdown of American morals.

A 1910 editorial cartoon showing women in swim suits carrying Satan, hero-like, on their shoulders.


By 1920, some cities had tightened their swimsuit laws. New York recruited female officers to monitor the swim suits worn on beaches and issue citations if women were found in violation of city regulations.

From the New York Times, May 30, 1919.


In In Chicago the city by-passed the citation route and—as a precursor to the bikini dust-up of the 1960s—simply took women off to jail if they judged them to be indecently dressed.

Chicago swimmers being forced into police paddy-wagon before being taken to jail in 1922.


In Washington, D.C. one male officer made a name for himself as The Bathing Beach Cop by using a tape measure to ensure the distance between a female bather’s knee and the bottom of her bathing suit met with local regulations.

Bill Norton, the D.C. Bathing Beach Cop on duty.


By the 1930s the hue and cry over women’s bathing suits had, for the most part, shrunk to a whisper. Swim suits that had been scandalously indecent in 1920 became mainstream by 1930. After that, women’s swim suits changed very little through the 1950s.

Then came the 1960s and the little bikini, and Americans have never looked back. But what a far cry today’s swim suits are from the head-to-toe garments Isabella’s contemporaries wore!

You can click here to view more images of Victorian-era bathing suits:

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