See what people wore to the beach 100 years ago (Hint: There were no bikinis)

Note: This article may feature affiliate links, and purchases made may earn us a commission at no extra cost to you. Find out more here.

Woman with parasol at Palm Beach, Florida (1900)

Note: This article may feature affiliate links to Amazon or other companies, and purchases made via these links may earn us a small commission at no additional cost to you. Find out more here.

So, what would it have been like to go to the beach 100 years ago?

There was a time when women’s “swimsuits” were really more like swim dresses, complete with skirts. Otherwise, much of the swimwear from the 1920s consisted of long, loose fitting tunics, blouses, and bloomers — and anything less was considered scandalous.

Just take a look at these vintage swimsuits and modest old-fashioned swimwear for men and women.

Vintage swimwear and modesty: Mixed bathing comes to America! (1913)

From the St. Louis Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) August 10, 1913

What are our bathing costumes coming to? Or, perhaps it should be asked, what bathing costumes are coming to us? And how long will it take us to adopt those which are pretty sure to come?

The Beach, Palm Beach, Florida - Colorized (c1905)

Europe, which has sent us the directoire gown, the split skirt and other gasp-producing modes of street costume has something new for us in beach attire. And that something new does not include stockings or any sort of a skirt.

New customs – new fashions in bathing Europe has prepared for us

Vintage swimwear and modesty Mixed bathing comes to America (1913)

Such attire as American women would not think of wearing at bathing beaches, and as Americans have seen worn only by Annette Kellerman and other professionals in special tank exhibitions, is the daily outdoor garb of thousands of women at the most fashionable beaches of England and the Continent this year.

Beside these new garments — one cannot call them dresses — how like a mandate of Puritanism sound the rules made for the Fairground pool, St. Louis’ big new bathing beach, by Miss Charlotte Rumbold, censor of costumes by virtue of her position as secretary of the Public Recreation Commission.

Vintage women in swimsuits (1924)
Vintage women in swimsuits (1924)

Those rules are:

  • Girls over 15 years old MUST wear skirts.
  • Bathing suits must not be made of thin material, which will cling to the body when wet, or of light-colored goods.
  • Instead of this American edict of modesty, the mandate of European fashion for women at the bathing beaches is:
  • Don’t wear skirts. You can wear them at home.
  • Display the human form as much as possible. What is it for if not to be admired?
  • Weight and color of bathing costumes are matters of taste. For a plump woman, stiped goods make a stunning suit.
Vintage teens at a bathing beach (1909)
Vintage teens at a bathing beach (1909)

It is a far cry, someone may remark, from a American inland bathing pool, 24 hours’ ride from salt water, to such European beaches as Ostend Brighton and Trouville. Put the cry becomes a shriek when the difference in women’s garb is noted.

Brighton, it might be supposed, would be an exception, for it is not far from London, and London’s ways, in matters of dress, are not the way of Paris and Brussels.

Silent movie actresses at the beach in swimsuits in 1919 (1)

But since Nausicaa’s bathing maidens romper around Ulysses, furnishing Homer with material for some immortal “copy,” men’s eyes have hardly gazed on scantier attire than that of the English maid who, on the steps of a Brighton bathing machine, readily posed for the photographer.

And her costume, which began halfway between the knees and the hips, and was in one piece of striped material, was no daring exception to the general fashion which prevailed at Brighton.

Adults sitting in chairs at old Brighton Beach - Brooklyn New York (c1910)
A different Brighton: Adults sitting in chairs at old Brighton Beach – Brooklyn, New York (c1910)

The bathing machine itself is not nearly such a vehicle of concealment as it used to be. Time was when the tithing maiden, even after she had put on skirts, was unwilling to display her covered ankles by walking from the dressing room to the water.

For her benefit, the bathing machine was devised, and from the machine, when towed into knee-deep water, the swimmer would make her first appearance.

Men and women in vintage swimwear from 1913

The bathing machines are still in use at the European beaches, but patient servitors do not have one-half the trouble they used to have in dragging them into the water.

For the women now skirtless, not only walk from the machine to the waves, in sight of everyone on the beach, but they often stop on the beach to flirt, to gossip and even to turkey trot.

At the celebrated bath of Wannsee, near Berlin, dancing and swimming are combined, and the swimmers, before taking a dip, enjoy a tango or a two-step. Some of the women put loose dresses over their bathing costumes, some do not. And Wannsee, be it remembered, is a “family” resort.

Old photo - Woman on the beach at Long Beach in New York (c1912) - Colorized
Woman on the beach at Long Beach in New York (c1912) – Colorized

At the great international resort of the Lido, on the Adriatic, near Venice, visiting Australians have introduced costumes as daring as those of their German cousins.

At Naples, in the warm waters of the Mediterranean, bathing has taken new popularity, and men and women, in costumes of athletic type, perform daring feats in diving and distance swimming.

Trouville and Ostend, the latter perhaps the world’s most cosmopolitan bathing place, might be expected to “go the limit” in daring attire, and this expectation is well met by the pictures which have been obtained there.

An old bathing beach, seen from a seating gallery (1923)
An old bathing beach, seen from a seating gallery (1923)

These pictures show that the abandonment of skirts is not wholly for the purpose of swimming unhampered. The wearers of the new model see no reason why they should stay in deep water.

The water hides their forms, and they do not think their forms exactly need hiding. Water ankle-deep is about right — few women are so fortunate in their feet that their bare toes add substantially to their beauty.

Silent movie actresses at the beach in swimsuits in 1919 (4)

As westward the course of fashion takes its way, we may look for some approach to the hew European modes at Old Point Comfort, or Atlantic City, or Bailey’s Beach, Newport, or even at Nantasket or chilly Bar Harbor.

Some English or French visitor, or some musical comedy star, not quite content with the press notices she has been getting, may brave the public eye, and the more public camera in one of the skirtless costumes. And it may become the fashion, like riding astride, and, in some circles, the feminine cigarette — or it may not.

Silent movie actresses at the beach in swimsuits in 1919 (3)

American ideas of modesty have sometimes been strong enough to stay the march even of Continental fashion. And unleash the new style wins acceptance in the East, St. Louis and the Great Lakes bathing resorts are not likely to be troubled with it.

At any rate, legislators will have a chance to introduce bills on the subject, and town councils in seaside communities can increase local revenue by a system of fines graded by fractions of an inch in the gap between the one-piece suit and the wearer’s knee.

Silent movie actresses at the beach in swimsuits in 1919 (2)

In the meantime, a good joke is about to be spoiled. No more can the comic paragrapher get a well-earned dollar by writing of bathing suits which get lost by being laid under postage stamps, or which are made over from dolls’ dresses. Such tales will soon cease to be jokes, and will become statements of fact.

On the sand with picnics at Long Beach New York – colorized (c1915)

On the sand with picnics at Long Beach New York (c1915)

Playing leapfrog at the beach – colorized (1921)

Playing leapfrog at the beach (1921)

York Beach, Maine – Vintage hand colorization (c1901)

York Beach, Maine - Vintage hand colorization (c1901)


Woman with parasol at Palm Beach, Florida (1900)

Fully-dressed at the beach (c1920)

Suit vests at the seaside, of course! This is probably somewhere in New York or along the coast northward. (Colorized photo)

Beach scene in in the early 1920s

Vintage Jersey Shore beach scene from the early 1900s

Vintage Jersey Shore beach scenes from the early 1900s (1)

Old Orchard Beach, Maine (1929)

Back is inscribed: “At the beach in Old Orchard – Summer 1929.” The building in the back appears to be the “Lafayette Public Bath House,” and the beach umbrella has an ad for R G Sullivan’s cigar factory in Manchester, NH.

Old Orchard Beach, Maine (1929)

PS: If you liked this article, please share it! You can also get our free newsletter, follow us on Facebook & Pinterest, plus see exclusive retro-inspired products in our shop. Thanks for visiting!

More stories you might like

Because the fun never ends

Comments on this story

Leave a comment here!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.