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Things that Matter: 1910s bathing suit

This modest woolen swimsuit would have been considered quite modern — even daring — for women of the 1910s. Unlike heavy bathing costumes a decade or so earlier with puffed-sleeve dresses, bloomers and long black stockings, it fit the body and allowed for actual swimming.

In Victorian times, most women took dips in the water rather than swimming or diving. Women visiting the ocean jumped through waves while holding onto a rope attached to a buoy. But a growing trend toward athleticism in the early 20th century made more practical swimwear for women necessary.

Form-fitting swimsuits for women were initially controversial. In 1907, swimmer Annette Kellerman from Australia visited the United States as an “underwater ballerina,” a version of synchronized swimming involving diving into glass tanks. She was arrested on a Boston beach for indecent exposure because her swimsuit showed her arms, legs and neck.

Kellerman adapted her suit with long sleeves, long legs and a collar. It became known as “the Annette Kellerman,” and, despite opposition from some groups, it became quite popular. One-piece swimming tights became accepted swimsuit attire for women, and radually the long sleeves and legs were shortened.

By the 1912 Olympics, women were swimming competitively, wearing swimsuits with short sleeves and legs ending at mid-thigh. Twenty-seven women from eight countries (though none from the United States) participated in two events, the 100-meter freestyle and 4X100 freestyle relay.

In the United States, the term “swim suit” was first coined in 1915 by Jantzen Knitting Mills, a former California sweater manufacturer. Wool was the preferred fabric because it was opaque in water. Although many women still wore long matching stockings with swimsuits, legs were no longer completely hidden. Stocking lengths varied from almost touching the swimsuit to knee-high or shorter — depending on the discretion or daring of the individual. Jantzen also developed a popular unisex swimsuit similar to this one.

This full-length charcoal grey swimsuit by Gantner & Mattern of San Francisco featured buttons at the shoulders, and it ended in boy-leg drawers covered by a tunic. Sets of black, gray and white stripes accentuated the chest and hem.

The swimsuit was donated by the Quincy Hale family of La Crosse. Hale was a prominent La Crosse lawyer and community leader. It’s likely his wife, Helen, once wore this suit, marking the progress of women while gracing a La Crosse beach with the latest in swimwear fashion.

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