Making a Historical Swimsuit, 1910

Since it is now officially summer (and disgustingly hot and humid), I’ve decided to spend this week focusing on some more weather appropriate projects.

And I’m starting with most summery of all projects: A swimsuit!

Or more specifically, an edwardian swimming costume based on examples from the early 1900s.

My original inspiration for this project was this picture.  I saw it just before leaving for a trip to Jo-anns and instantly decided to add 5 yards of black cotton to my shopping list. It wasn’t until I got home and did more research that I realized that is not an Edwardian swimming costume – It’s a pair of swimming bloomers with a corset cover from an earlier period.

So I did a bit more research after that, and finally decided to base my ensemble on this garment. I also discovered some glorious sailor inspired suits, but I didn’t have suitable (heh, suitable) fabric for them.

In my research I also learned that swimsuits during the early 1900s were made out of wool. But I knew finding lightweight wool would be a challenge, and it would probably be a tightly woven suiting that didn’t have much texture to it.

In the end I bought a lightweight cotton, which might be a quilting cotton, but it has a strong sheen to it, almost like cotton sateen. I’m happy with this choice since it’s more interesting (and way cheaper) than matte black wool, but it wrinkles like crazy which isn’t ideal.

I also bought buttons, and stole a 1/2 yard of paisley quilting cotton from my moms stash, which will be used for binding.

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Step one was draping. This has a flat back and collar, with a gathered front.

My fist mockup went surprisingly well! I had to lift the waistline slightly, but the amount of volume and gathering was perfect.

I started assembly by cutting out the collar pieces. They were sewn together at the centerback, then backed with interfacing. The piece on the left is the lining.

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I sewed those together with the wrong sides facing each other.

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Then bias binding was pinned and sewn on!

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I folded the binding inward and stitched it down with whip stitches, so both sides of the fabric are nicely finished.

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The front few inches of the bodice panels were backed with interfacing. Then these edges were turned inward in preparation for adding the closures.

I also gathered the top and bottom edges by hand.

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I sewed the front pieces to the back pieces with french seams. Then I finished the arm openings with facings.

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I sewed the collar on by hand. The raw edges from the bodice were turned inward and whip stitched down.

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I didn’t love the sleeves on the extant garment I based this on, so I decided to make mine with more volume. I fiddled with the pattern for a while before settling on this. The top edge is straight, and the bottom is curved.

The pins were used to mark the right side of the fabric – the sheen of this fabric is definitely more prominent on one side, but not very visible in certain lightings, so I had to be careful!

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The bottom edge was trimmed with bias tape – once again sewn on by hand. And the top edge was gathered slightly.

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I sewed the side seams as a french seam, then stitched the sleeves to the bodice by hand.

I also sewed on all the buttons (which are decorative), and closures into the center front. The collar closes with hooks, and the bodice closes with snaps.

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The “skirt” was draped out of some random cottons. I was very concerned about the shape of this – I wanted it to have some volume, but not flare out too much. I also didn’t have a ton of fabric, so I couldn’t make the panels too wide.

The skirt pieces were sewn together with french seams.

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Then all the edges were trimmed with bias tape – once again stitched on by hand!

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The skirt was gathered near the front, and at the back.

Then I sewed the skirt to the bodice with the wrong sides facing each other, leaving the raw edges facing out. The waistband will cover these later.

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After a fitting I realized the skirt looked longer on one side than the other…despite them being the same length (trust me, I measured). So I sewed a dart into the top of one of the panels, making it a half inch shorter.

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Now it was time for the waistband! This is made from a bias cut strip of printed fabric that has the edges turned inward, and an interfaced strip of black fabric with its edges turned inward.

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I basted the strips together, then sewed them to the bodice by hand with tiny whip stitches.

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The final step was sewing on two hooks – one at the front, and another where the waistband ends.edited (25 of 32)

(It’s already wrinkly)

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Now for the bloomers – because that bodice would be indecent without them! For these I used the bloomer pattern originally drafted for my cycling costume, I just made the pattern shorter.

However I also should have made the pattern narrower, these had way more volume than they needed.

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I didn’t take very many photos of this process, but the pants were sewn together with french seams. To keep the front smooth, I moved the closures to the sides of the bloomers. To do this I left the tops of the side seams open, and sewed buttons and loops onto either side of the waistband.

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The top edges were pleated to avoid excess volume under the bodice.

There are channels for the drawstring cuffs sewn five inches away from the hem of the bloomers. These were made out of strips of black fabric.

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Then the bottom edges were finished with bias binding, and a ribbon was threaded through the channel. I left a 1″ gap in the side seam where the channel is, which allows the ribbon to peek out.

As a side note, to get the cuffs to stay where I wanted them, I had to tie the ribbon before putting the bloomers on. There was no way to tighten them enough to stay up while they were on my legs.

The top edge is finished with bias binding, and has the loops/button closure method that I mentioned earlier. Unfortunately these ended up being WAY to big for me, so I had to pin the sides when we photographed it. Definitely something to fix in the future.

Also, these bloomers ended up being ridiculously long. I made them 3″ shorter than my cycling bloomers, but cut another 5-7″ off before binding the waistline. They were so baggy it was ridiculous.

And that’s it!

All and all this was a fun, easy project. I’m happy with how the bodice fits, and how it all looks together. It isn’t the best thing I’ve made construction wise, but for $30 of fabric and 4 days of work I’m pleased with it.

I’ve already photographed this project, and here is a partially edited preview of it all together!

This photoshoot wasn’t very successful since it ended up being really sunny, and the beach I wanted to go to required permits we didn’t have. Hopefully I can edit out some of the harsher shadows and get the full set posted soon.

Thanks for reading!



19 thoughts on “Making a Historical Swimsuit, 1910

    • Angela Clayton says:

      I did not! I think swimsuits were made for wading at this point, not swimming. Plus the water wasn’t very clean and swimming in a corset isn’t a high priority of mine haha. But I did get my feet wet and learn that damp, sandy stockings are not fun to walk in!

  1. raquel says:

    Lovely! Approximately ten years ago I went the the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach to see the Jantzen exhibition about the history of swimsuits, very interesting

  2. Alexandra says:

    Another great creation! I really enjoy your updates. If one were to have an opportunity to make a visit to NYC where might they shop for fun bargains for fabric, ribbons and trims? Any street in particular?

  3. Anni says:

    Gorgeous and very interesting. Thank you for showing so many steps!

    I remember my mother telling me a story about my grandmother (b 1894, d 1966) while we were driving over a bridge near where my grandmother grew up. Under the bridge was a common swimming spot for the youth back then. (Since then, rebuilding the bridge changed the depth and curve of the creek, and it wasn’t suitable for much other than wading when I grew up.) My mother told me that one time my grandmother jumped off the bridge into the water, but her bloomers had filled with air, which forced her upside down. She nearly drowned before someone saw her and helped her out.

    Consequently, anytime my daughters wore bloomers under their dresses, my mother would always comment to make sure they didn’t go swimming in that outfit because their bloomers might fill with air. (As if I’m going to allow my daughters to go swimming in a church dress!)

    Perhaps that the weave of the fabric in my grandmother’s bloomers must have been very tight, and it was probably wool, like you said, which would keep the water out.

    • Angela Clayton says:

      What a story! That sounds frightening. I don’t think swimming bloomers were made for diving (probably for that reason!). I know competitive swimmers during that period wore tighter fitting wool (or wool jersey) suits which probably worked better for actual swimming but were considered indecent by the general public up until the 20’s.

      Bloomers were intended for wading and “taking in the sun”…you know, womenly activities of the early 1900’s!

  4. Neena Maddox says:

    beautiful, I like that you do a lot of hand work, I do the same, you have inspired me to start sewing for myself. its easy sewing outfits for others. but trying to get the right fit for yourself is hard.

  5. Elizabeth Strand says:

    I’ve been trying to find some way to contact you, but I don’t want to send an email and fill up your inbox, so I’ll comment here.

    I’ve been following you for the last year and since I’ve seen your creations, I’ve taken up sewing. So far, I’ve made five dresses! Each one is getting better than the last and I’ve learn all I know about sewing from seeing your videos and reading your blog! Thank you so much for sharing all of this with us otherwise I probably wouldn’t have taken up sewing again.

    I was just wondering if I could throw in a suggestion for a project. By no means feel any pressure from this, but I thought it might be a cool project. I’m currently watching Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge and I saw Satine’s red dress. One day I hope I had tackle a project like that, but I thought you might be interested!

    Also, she has this super cute jacket that I think you’d fall completely in love with.

    I’m sorry if you don’t want suggestions or if you just get too many from people! I thought you might like to know :3 And if you haven’t seen the movie, it’s super cute and tragic.

    Good luck with everything you do! Thank you so much!

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