M998.23.1 | Bathing suit

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Bathing suit
1860-1870, 19th century
114 x 115 cm
Gift of Howard and Valerie Smith
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  Bathing suit (5)
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Keys to History

Over the course of the 19th century, interest grew in vigorous sport swimming as opposed to leisurely, therapeutic bathing. Until the late 19th century, men commonly swam naked in the exclusive company of other men. The debate over appropriate swimwear revolved around the question of mixed bathing--men and women swimming together. Social prohibitions against public displays of sexuality meant that both sexes wore bulky swimsuits that revealed little.

In the 1860s, when swimsuits for men were first introduced, they were shapeless affairs of scratchy wool--modest, but neither comfortable nor practical for swimming.

Toward the end of the 19th century, it became acceptable for men to wear body-hugging jersey swimsuits that covered much, but left little to the imagination. The streamlined style was justified on the grounds of practicality for swimming, though women continued to wear more modest bathing costumes.

  • What

    In the 19th century, grey wool, trimmed with braid, was recommended for swimsuits. Men's swimsuits were closely styled on underwear.

  • Where

    This swimsuit was found in Georgeville, near Lake Memphramagog, a summer resort area in Quebec's Eastern Townships that became popular in the last century.

  • When

    The style of this swimsuit dates it to around 1860. Close-fitting swimsuits of stretch fabrics were not introduced until the late 19th century.

  • Who

    The wearer of this swimsuit is unknown. Could a family man who enjoyed his summer vacation at Lake Memphramagog have worn this suit?