Anoka County history: A day at the beach – circa 1890

My swimsuit is so old it’s got a hole in the knee!

Before 1900, the cultural expectation of modesty in public resulted in beach attire that was bulky and restrictive.

During the last half of the 1800s, women wore “bathing gowns “or “bathing costumes” which were long multilayered dresses made of wool or flannel.

They even had weights sewn into the hem to keep the skirts from floating up in the water.

Perhaps that was the reason that, until the 20th century, women did not actually swim.

They waded through the water, holding a rope attached to a pole because their bathing costume could weigh as much as 22 pounds!

By the early 1900s, many American cities had laws that required women in bathing suits to wear stockings since the bathing costume skirts were rising above the knee.

It wasn’t until 1921, when the Jantzen Swimwear Company introduced more streamlined and practical suits.

At that point they decided to change the term “bathing suit” to “swimming suit” to justify their more revealing suits as a form of athleticism.

Surprisingly, men also suffered from similar restrictions.

The first bathing costumes for American men appeared in the mid-1800s.

They were usually made of wool, had sleeves and a small skirt for modesty.

In May 1917, the American Association of Park Superintendents published “Bathing Suit Regulations” which stated that men’s suits should include a “skirt” worn outside the swimming trunks.

One of the first chest-revealing suits for men appeared in 1932 and was called the “Topper.”

The suit had a detachable top that could be zipped away from the trunk bottoms.

Wearing the suit without the top was considered indecent exposure in many cities and actually led to arrests.

It wasn’t until 1937 that men finally won the right to wear swimming shorts without a shirt.

Then came the bikini. It was named after the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific’s Marshall Islands, where the U.S. tested the atomic bomb in 1946.

Both the tiny swimsuit and the bomb had an explosive influence on American culture.

When the first bikini was introduced in 1946, it was marketed as a two-piece swimming suit that revealed “everything about a girl except her mother’s maiden name.”

The original bikini was created by an automobile engineer, Louis Reard and consisted of only 30 square inches of fabric.

Reard argued that it wasn’t a real bikini unless it would be “pulled through a wedding ring.”

Americans were shocked by the first skimpy bikinis and their sales were slow.  Some cities banned them from their public beaches.

It was not until the 1960’s that the bikini became accepted.

A song about the “itsy, bitsy, teeny, weeny, yellow polka dot bikini” may have contributed to its popularity.

In 1938, Carrie Hall said, “The bathing suit of today is nothing much before and a little less than half of that behind.”

I wonder what she would have to say about a bikini!

Editor’s note: Maria King is a volunteer with the Anoka County Historical Society.

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