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How the bathing suit killed the bathing skirt

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.
In the 1880s, going for a swim was a tangled affair.

In the 1880s, going for a swim was a tangled affair.

Kean Collection/Getty Images

In 1915, a group of rebels challenged tradition. These Californians were called the "skirts be hanged girls," and they had a revolutionary goal: swimsuits that women could actually swim in.

The "skirts be hanged girls" wanted swimsuits that you could swim in.

The "skirts be hanged girls" wanted swimsuits that you could swim in.

Library of Congress

Most of us are familiar with the one-piece/two-piece bathing suit skirmishes of the past 50 years. But before that came a greater challenge: ditching bathing dresses and bathing skirts for outfits that were actually swimmable.

The bathing skirt was typical for the beach

Two women prepare to swim in the 1890s

Two women prepare to swim in the 1890s.

Royal Photographic Society/Getty Images

Many people have an image of the striped suits that male swimmers wore around the turn of the 20th century, but women also had a standard beach outfit: a dress or skirt.

Sometimes these outfits were repurposed from daily life, but they were often specially purchased. Though both men's and women's outfits were concealing compared with today's outfits, early women's swimsuits were vastly more difficult to swim in. This group in Cincinnati prepared to dive into the water in what would today be considered nearly formal wear:

A day at the beach in the early 1900s

A day at the beach in the early 1900s.

Cincinnati Museum Center/Getty Images

Everybody's Magazine surveyed beach trends in 1902, and it offers a helpful index of American mores at the time: Bathing suits were often silk, though not always, and were worn with bloomers or, at the very least, tights.

These bathing outfits weren't just convention — they were actively policed, too. Throughout the early 20th century, as Kathleen Morgan Drowne and Patrick Huber write in their book about 1920s pop culture, dress codes were enforced on many beaches. Drowne and Huber recall how on Chicago's Clarendon beach, a tailor was employed to craft on-the-beach modifications to excessively revealing dresses. Similar standards existed across the country, like Coney Island's 1915 ban on bathing socks that "showed a bather's dimpled knees," or this beach cop enforcing dress code in Washington, DC:

A beach cop gets to measuring

A beach cop gets to measuring.

Library of Congress

It's tough to know what effect these skirts actually had on safety, but at the very least, impractical bathing outfits probably discouraged a lot of swimming.

The long journey to a normal day at the beach, thanks to the '20s and the West

A more recognizable bathing outfit in the 1920s

A more recognizable bathing outfit in the 1920s.

American Stock/Getty Images

So how did we go from concealing dresses to conservative but recognizable bathing suits like the ones seen above? However it happened, it was slow. There wasn't an instant change in bathing style across the entire nation.

But anecdotal reports make it look like the West Coast can claim some credit. Divided skirts (think skorts) started the trend, and bathing suits advanced from there. In addition to the "skirts be hanged girls" who took LA in 1915, in the same year Portland, Oregon, censors declared that old-style suits were unsafe. Active outdoor life in the West didn't fit with East Coast and Midwestern censorship — it simply wasn't practical.

To be clear, Eastern morals persisted even as the West Coast changed — all this happened at the same time as some men in Washington, DC, were being forced to wear bathing skirts in an attempt to preserve modesty. Even in 1922, East Coast columnists were still recommending wool bathing skirts for the beach (because wool fit well). These women are all wearing wool suits, though the cuts are slightly more modern:

Wool bathing suits. They were real.

Wool bathing suits. They were real.

GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

We can guess that as the West Coast's influence grew during the 1910s and 1920s, attitudes toward swimwear changed as well. Over time, the beach looked more like this 1930 California example:

Beach party! (Circa 1930)

Beach party! (Circa 1930)

General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Can the "skirts be hanged girls" take credit for the swimwear revolution? No, they probably weren't the only reason that beachwear changed. That shift is too big and complicated to attribute to one group of women.

But they do represent a national shift that wasn't just about fashion but also practicality. In that way, they stand for all women who wanted more from their day at the beach: mainly, an opportunity to actually swim.