American women, however, were still well wrapped up when they went to the beach. We have a bathing dress in the Museum, dated approximately 1905, which was typical of its time. The bodice extended up to the chin, there were sleeves, and there were knee-length bloomers that peeked out below a wrap-around skirt. The long black cotton stockings, obligatory with the outfit, are the only part of the costume that has not survived.
Obviously the lady in such an outfit had no interest in getting wet. She might pick up shells, or build sand castles with her children, but she could not join her husband in jumping waves or attempting a timid doggy-paddle.
Then came the revolution! In 1912 the Olympics introduced a swimming event for women. In the war years that followed women shortened their skirts, bobbed their hair and agitated for voting rights. By the 1920s they were appearing in one-piece bathing suits, and Gertrude Ederle made it clear that the costume was not a fashion statement.
When I went to college, passing the swimming test was a no-credit, no-excuse requirement for graduation. True, I was exempt from recovering that brick from the bottom of the pool (I had a chronic sinus problem) but I had to propel myself around the pool for 20 minutes without touching the side. For students, as for those ancient Greek warriors, swimming was considered a survival skill.
For the college swimming team there were sleek yellow Jantzen bathing suits; for girls like me there were ugly gray cotton outfits supplied by the college and supposedly sterilized (boiled?) after every wearing. We didn't invite the boys from Haverford or Penn to join us at the pool!
Off-campus it was a different situation. Bathing suits sported ornamentation, bright colors, and year after year, little by little, they became skimpier. We began to wonder whether they were held on by super glue.