Modern Swimwear—What’s a Pasty White Girl to Do?
Updated: May 19
I’m going to the beach next month, an unusual occurrence for this mountain girl. But what should I wear? It’s not a question of vanity, but of sunburn.
I’m a red-headed Irish girl, which makes me like a vampire. There is a popular meme about the Irish girl on the beach, like a ghost in the white sand.
As a young girl, my sister and I discovered a product called suntan oil (SPF 2). We covered our bodies in the stuff and tried to tan. It didn’t go well. As a teen, I laid in the sun for five minutes on each side every day, like a piece of chicken cooking. I planned to increase the time as my tan developed. Instead, I cultivated a fabulous crop of freckles.
Who came up with modern swimwear anyway? And why is it appropriate to wear a string bikini in public but not to walk around in underwear? In college, a Belgian girl lived on my dorm floor. She didn’t understand this. She decided to sunbathe with the other students and stripped down to her bra and panties. The horrified young guys told her to put her clothes back on.
She responded, “Just like swimsuit.”
She wasn’t wrong, but no one was having it.
Other than the birthday suit, swimwear didn’t exist until the late 1800s. This is when trains could take people to the beach for a day of leisure. Clothing for swimming was all about modesty. Women wore full-length dresses, sometimes made of wool with weights to keep the skirt from floating up. Bloomers were added as the skirts grew shorter.
Here is a drawing of a beach scene in New York in 1882. I will be the woman in the lower left-hand corner sitting under an umbrella with a blanket over her legs.
As swimwear grew shorter and more daring, beach police patrolled the shores and removed women who wore indecent outfits. One such instance is shown in this poster for a Broadway musical in 1898. Note the police officer measuring the girl’s swim skirt.
Although, I’m wondering why so many beach costumes are designed to look like sailor dresses? Here is a 1906 photo of bathing beauties—in sailor dresses. This trend continued well into the 1970s. I’m sure I owned at least one growing up. And what’s with the posing? The poor woman in front looks like she’s fainting.
As women began to actually swim, instead of frolicking in the waves, suits grew shorter and more daring. It makes sense. Tiny suits are more aerodynamic (or is there a word for water-dynamic) and they dry faster. I hate sitting around in a wet suit. Although I’m not sure how easy it would be to swim in this 1904 suit.
As I researched for this blog and considered my dilemma, Facebook presented a solution. I don’t know if I should be happy or creeped out. A company which sells modest clothing offered long swim skorts and long sleeve swim shirts. A treasure for us pale skinned girls.
Mine should arrive in the mail any day. With Paypal, I didn’t even have to get out of my chair to order. The other beach-goers will thank me for not blinding them.
Now to find a giant sombrero to shade my face, and I’m off to the beach.