Book Review: Vintage Swimwear by Jill Salen

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Jill Salen’s new pattern book, Vintage Swimwear: Historical Patterns and Techniques (May 2013), is the third in her series of great resources for those who love to sew or want to get closer to the study of historic clothing. Written by a costume maker with extensive experience in the theater world, Vintage Swimwear examines each museum object featured in its pages with respect for the garment itself as well as its clothing-historical context.

Those familiar with Salen’s previous works, Corsets and Vintage Lingerie, will recognize the format. The author begins with an overview of the cultural history of swimwear in the British Isles, focused on the years 1880-1970; the extant garments and the cultural history in this book are exclusively British. Anecdotal historical evidence ranging from the advice on the healthful benefits of bathing in (and drinking) seawater from Dr. Richard Russell in 1753 to the impact of Brigitte Bardot’s world-famous bikinis give the reader a sense of the evolution of bathing suits and bathing. Early in the introduction, Salen acknowledges the materiality of swimwear, the very closeness to our bodies and sensuality of clothing that makes the study of costume so human and exciting:

Comfortable, practical swimwear has been available for over 50 years, supporting our bodies in flattering ways, allowing us to swim vigorously and drying quickly. However, some of the swimwear of the past was certainly not comfortable: many among the older generations will remember how it felt to wear a woollen costume that filled with water and tried hard to pull itself off your body as you left the sea, or a cotton bikini that contained no Lycra, and revealed far more of the body than the designer intended. (6)

Although few will probably re-create the “Red and White Swimming Outfit” of red cotton (c. 1880, 10-11) for their next trip to Watch Hill or Cocoa Beach, the experiential learning that comes from re-creating historic garments is of great value to the scholar. We have relatively little direct, physical access to historic clothing, perhaps with the exception of vintage shops, whose selection is often limited to the twentieth century. Books such as those by Salen and other legendary pattern-makers and costumers, such as Janet Arnold and Jenny Tiramani, give us an alternate route to experiencing historic garments. One without nitrile gloves and collections policies, where you can even try a garment on–in the water!–and feel that heaviness of wet wool described above, and then the relative freedom of a machine-shirred 1930s sunsuit or a flower-print cotton 1960s bikini.

To re-create these garments in their original materials is quite a challenge, however, and because many, especially those from the twentieth century, were manufactured by large companies instead of home-made, the “authentic” experience from drafting the pattern to wearing the garment is unavailable. But Salen’s meticulous work creating patterns from extant garments in the Symington Collection (Leicestershire Museum Service and St Fagans: National History Museum, Cardiff) results in a rich resource for all–even those who cannot sew.

I think it is significant that Salen was not allowed to handle these garments; this will affect her measurements, which were taken by holding measuring tapes “above or alongside” the garments, but never touching them (6). Compare this to an article written in 1980 for the periodical Dress, in which Marcia Prellwitz and Marcia D. Metcalf use basting stitches in nineteenth century garments to document and take measurements of these extant pieces. While each museum has different policies–and I certainly do not advise extensive handling of historic garments–the growing preciousness ascribed to historic clothing severely limits its study. While acknowledging these setbacks in her introduction, Salen provides the reader with detailed diagrams and measurements of each extant garment.

Men's Swimwear: "Sports Shorts, White With Red Stripes, 1890-1900" and "Black Swimming Trunks, 1960s." pp 94-95, "Vintage Swimwear."

Men’s Swimwear: “Sports Shorts, White With Red Stripes, 1890-1900” and “Black Swimming Trunks, 1960s.” pp 94-95, “Vintage Swimwear.”

Salen chose twenty-nine swimming outfits to analyze, eight of which are for men. Each garment is heralded with a full-page color photograph, or two when the suit has an interesting feature such as a removable skirt, a famous label, or intriguing design details on back side. Salen uses each of these garments as a material-culture springboard into clothing history, using one accessible page of text to quote from contemporary sources and cite specific wear patterns or idiosyncrasies in the sewing:

The bra cups are interlined with a slightly thicker fabric that has been cut and zigzag stitched together with no overlap, and these form the shaping with the underwire. The edges are bound in the same fabric as the garment, creating the shoulder straps. The bra top has button and buttonhole closure, so there is nothing that could rust and damage the fabric….The shorts or bikini bottoms have a 36 in (91 cm) waist and hip; I think this bikini was aimed at the mature market rather than a teenage one. (Green Flower Print Bikini, 1960s, 79)

These few sentences act both as clues for the home seamstress re-creating the swimsuits as well as the historian; the methods of manufacture are as important as the form and fashion of the garment itself (just ask any couturière). This insider knowledge of the inside of clothing is an important skill to develop, and is largely unavailable in collections databases and from viewing garments on display; few people–even researchers–are allowed to examine garments so extensively, and passing on that information is vital.

"Utility Swimsuit, 1941-49." Description and photographs, page 53, "Vintage Swimwear."

“Utility Swimsuit, 1941-49.” Description and photographs, page 53, “Vintage Swimwear.”

Pattern drawn by Salen for "Utility Swimsuit, 1941-49." pp 54-55, "Vintage Swimsuits."

Pattern drawn by Salen for “Utility Swimsuit, 1941-49.” pp 54-55, “Vintage Swimsuits.”

Although backed by many years of expertise, the opinions and educated guesses about materials and use in these brief descriptions are highly subjective; however, they do bring the reader closer to a garment, make it more real, and give the impression of a relaxed conversation with a confident expert:

I wondered if this is the work of a factory machinist, making good use of scraps of leftover fabric. Certainly, when I came across this suit in the museum store I thought it could be, as it seemed an unlikely shape and I had never seen anything like it before. However, a friend has since shown me a photograph of her mother wearing a similar suit in the Norfolk seaside town of Great Yarmouth in 1950. (Sun Suit, c. 1930, 45)

This has all the glamour of a 1950s swimsuit, and might possibly have been worn in a beauty contest, as a gold fabric swimsuit was bound to attract attention. (Jantzen Gold Swimsuit, 1950s, 65)

This is another important aspect of these books: although not an exhaustive description, it highlights the fallibility of these objects, the sweat marks and the uniquely-shaped bodies that wore them, often removed from the public’s interactions with historic clothing on display. Amateur stitching and imperfect materials, fading on the top of the breast, “unimpressive” construction: these suits were all made by people, worn by people, and saved by people.

On the pages following the photographic and textual descriptions, Salen provides painstaking pattern drawings, taken from her measurements and observations.

Patterns for "Sports Shorts, White With Red Stripes, 1890-1900" and "Black Swimming Trunks, 1960s," pp 96-97 in "Vintage Swimwear."

Patterns for “Sports Shorts, White With Red Stripes, 1890-1900” and “Black Swimming Trunks, 1960s,” pp 96-97 in “Vintage Swimwear.”

They are set on one-inch graph paper, à la Arnold (for Arnold is, herself, the pattern after which we are all cut). Mercifully for American seamsters, the imperial/standard system is used here, with parenthetical metric measurements. I did a lot of pattern drafting for independent studies and college plays, and I would feel very comfortable using these patterns (and common sense) to re-create many of these suits; the patterns may be more challenging for beginning sewers. Most have no instructions–don’t forget to add seam allowance!–and swimsuits, although small in yardage, can be deceptively complicated.  I didn’t have a chance to re-create any of the patterns for this review; although a test of her draughtsmanship may have been useful, the opportunity to re-create these garments is secondary to the wider opportunity to learn how to see these 3D objects in a 2D form/pattern.

For those newer to drafting and sewing, Salen dives more deeply into two garments at the end of each of her books as “projects.” Here, they are a “Ladies Bathing Costume, c. 1920” and a “Blue Satin Bathing Costume, 1947-55.” The reader is given slightly more information on scaling up and drafting her work, as well as step-by-step instructions on how to put the pieces together once you’ve figured out how to cut them in your size. These two featured projects represent a thoughtful date range and are accessible to two levels of skill: the second is of satin, a difficult material, and requires more advanced techniques than the bathing costume, which fits loosely with identically-shaped front and back.

Looking at other costume history resources on swimwear, Martin and Koda’s Splash! focuses on the fashion-y, exhibition-worthy side of swimwear, and Milbanks’ Resort Fashion puts swimwear in its haute luxury context, both laden with photographs of lithe bodies and exotic (or expensive) locales. Schmidt’s more scholarly and textual The Swimsuit comprises various essays on the garment, “from poolside to catwalk.” Albeit far from an exhaustive list of additional sources, these three books are a cohort of typical literature, focused on representations of swimwear in photographic form. Salen’s book fills a material-culture niche ajar in the scholarship, but should be augmented by more text-heavy works for a complete study.

Vintage Swimwear: Historical Patterns and Techniques by Jill Salen offers the reader an excellent entrée into the field of material culture, as well as the history of swimwear. By valuing these objects enough to not only celebrate them but also pick them apart (metaphorically!), she offers the reader a chance to approach the objects with which they seek to engage. Each swimming outfit featured offers a different perspective on and played an important role in the history of the genre in British culture, having an enormous impact on gender roles, social mores, leisure time, and personal identity. By using specific objects to elucidate general trends, she puts a face (or a suit) on typical clothing history texts. But she is willing to take this material culture study to the next level, offering her readers an opportunity to wear, to sew, to physically engage with clothing from pattern to playtime. While perhaps not a book to write into one’s Master’s thesis bibliography, the method should be inspiring to those clothing historians, collectors, seamsters, and enthusiasts who seek to go beyond written and even photographic description as a means of engaging with this tactile subject.

Back Cover of "Vintage Swimwear" by Jill Salen, 2013.

Back Cover of “Vintage Swimwear” by Jill Salen, 2013.


Opening Photo Credit: Cover of Vintage Swimwear: Historical Patterns and Techniques by Jill Salen, published by Batsford (UK), 2013.


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Further Reading:

Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion: the cut and construction of clothes for men and women, c.1560-1620. New York: Drama Book, 1985. [see also: the other books in the Patterns of Fashion series, and Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, as well as many articles in Costume].

Martin, Richard and Harold Koda. Splash! A History of Swimwear. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.

Milbanks, Caroline Reynolds. Resort Fashion: Style in Sun-Drenched Climates. New York: Rizzoli, 2009.

Prellwitz, Marcia and Marcia D. Metcalf. “The Documentation of 19th Century American Costume” Dress 6:1980, 24-30.

Salen, Jill. CorsetsHistoric Patterns and Techniques. Hollywood, CA: Costume & Fashion Press, 2009 [London: Batsford, 2009].

Salen, Jill. Vintage Lingerie: 30 Patterns Based on Period Garments Plus Finishing Techniques. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012 [London: Batsford, 2011].

Schmidt, Christine. The Swimsuit: Fashion from Poolside to Catwalk. Oxford: Berg, 2012.

Tiramani, Jenny et al. Seventeenth-Century women’s dress patterns. London: V&A Publications, 2011. [see also: Volume 2, 2012].

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