Fully dressed to barely there: The scandals that engulfed Australian women in changing the beliefs about bathing costumes throughout the early twentieth Century!

Bathing costumes have changed tremendously throughout the last century! Considering you can get away with being practically naked on the beaches these days, give or take the strategically placed piece of material. It is hard to picture that women at the turn of the 20th century were wearing bathing costumes that covered their body from head to toe, which effectively stopped them from swimming. Especially when Australia’s beach culture is now a predominate feature of our nationality.

So why did women wear such cumbersome bathing attire? Modesty is the answer. Men and women had segregated bathing houses, with restrictions primarily placed on when women could swim. This consisted of entry once a week in the evening, essentially stopping them from learning how to swim. It was thought that women who swam would get their swimsuit wet which would be to revealing of the female body and that a women’s modesty would be a ruined and men would be uncontrollable (ABC Radio Nation, 2014).

Despite the restrictions that were placed on women’s bathing costumes, competitive swimming for women did start to appear around the Sydney bathing houses. In 1901 the development of the Sydney Ladies Swimming Club occurred and within just a mere four years there were another five ladies clubs with a total of three hundred members (The Spit Swimming Club, 2014).  Initially women’s athleticism and masculinity was frowned upon, swimming was encouraged by the press, promoted within schools while being given multiple sanctions of having various medical benefits. Eventually swimming gained recognition because it was considered to be acceptable on all levels of “lady like” exertion. Women within the early 20th century were only allowed a mild “glow” whilst competing in sport. As swimming allowed women to exercise without breaking into a sweat it was thus considered an acceptable behaviour (Raszeja, 1992).

In a time when most women were steering clear of the swimming platform there were some key individuals making a name utilising it. One icon in who helped shape the history of women’s bathing costumes was Annette Kellerman. She is remembered mostly for generating scandals and controversies due to her bathing attire. Kellerman better known as ‘Australia’s mermaid’ personified the ideals of the perfect women.  She was born in Sydney and started off her career as a professional competitive swimmer in which she became a champion. Further on in Kellerman’s career she became a vaudeville and movie star, one of the most famous women of her day (Gibson, 2005).

The biggest scandal that Kellerman caused was in 1907 while she was performing in America doing vaudeville shows within the amusement park scene. Kellerman was arrested for indecency on Revere Beach, Boston when she was about to go for a three mile swim. However she was stopped by a police officer for wearing a bathing costume which was considered morally indecent (much like the bathing suits men were wearing at the time), pictured in image 2. The judge presiding over her court case accepted her arguments in favour of swimming as healthy exercise, provided she wore a robe until she entered the water.  It was her arrest that generated a flurry of publicity around the world which led her to design the first modern bathing costume for women.  ‘She placed a tight-fitting knit jersey skirt that came down just above the knees over her existing bathing suit’ (Gibson, 2005). Creating the modesty panel which was to exist on women’s bathing costumes up until the 1960s. Evidently her actions generated some necessary changes in women’s bathing costumes which would both enable and empower women to swim.

Modesty remained a large part of why women were restricted to swim. This was the case when two women Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie from Australia competed at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games. Together they had to overcome the resistance of many people including the IOC President to be allowed to swim at the Olympic Games. It took eight months to persuade the government and the Amateur Swimming Association that they should be allowed to compete. When finally they were given the green light they had conditions to adhere to including raising their own fares and being accompanied by a chaperone (ABC Radio Nation, 2014). Despite these challenges they won Australia’s first ever gold and silver medals for women from the Olympic Games.

By the time the 1930s rolled around it is hard to believe that women were being pictured with backless bathing costumes on the front of the Women’s Weekly magazine. The attitudes towards bathing costumes had transformed dramatically within just a couple of decades. Pivotal events such as the Great War and the introduction of the flapper woman added to these changes. Women started to embody themselves with a new sense of power liberating them from the restraints of the restrictive beach attire.

Australia’s beach culture has evolved progressively throughout the 20th century, especially in regards to women and their bathing costumes. These changes occurred because of significant progresses that women were making for themselves at the same time. Who would have known in just 3 decades the women’s bathing costume would become less and less restrictive and more and more revealing.

The transformation of the bathing suite!

References for Images:

  1. (Osmond, 2012)
  2. (Power House Museum, 1998)
  3. (Australian Government, 1992)
  4. (Mina Wylie and Fanny Durack)
  5. (Trove, 2014)


The Spit Swimming Club. (2014, October 20). The Spit Club’s first Olympian. Retrieved 2014, from The Spit Swimming Club ~ Balmoral Beach Baths: http://spitswimclub.org/2014/10/20/the-spit-clubs-first-olympian/

ABC Radio Nation. (2014, March 02). Anzac Mermaids. Retrieved from ABC Radio Nation: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/hindsight/anzac-mermaids/5253008

Australian Government. (1992). Annette Kellerman – The modern swimmer for modern women. Retrieved September 2014, from Annette Kellerman – The modern swimmer for modern women: http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/annette-kellerman

Gibson, E. (2005). The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman story. Crows Nest: Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin.

Mina Wylie and Fanny Durack. (n.d.). Mina Wylie and Fanny Durack.

Osmond, G. (2012). Swimming Her Own Course: Agency in the Professional Swimming Career of Alice Cavill. The International Journal of the History of Sport, Vol. 29, No. 3.

Power House Museum. (1998). Annette Kellerman Performance Costume. Retrieved September 2014, from Power House Museum: http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/mob/collection/database/?irn=9313&search=1907&images=&wloc=&c=0&s=0

Raszeja, V. (1992). “A Decent and Proper Exertion: The Rise Of Women’s Competitive Swimming In Sydney To 1912,”. ASSH Studies in Sports History No. 9.

Trove. (2014). The Australian Women’s Weekly: 1933-1982. Retrieved October 2014, from Trove: http://trove.nla.gov.au/aww/covers?year=1936


2 comments on “Fully dressed to barely there: The scandals that engulfed Australian women in changing the beliefs about bathing costumes throughout the early twentieth Century!

  1. Greta Gale says:

    This is such an interesting topic Candice! I definitely take it for granted that I can wear virtually anything to the beach, so it was great to read about how society progressed to that level. The idea of only achieving a ‘mild glow’ via exercise definitely restricted what women could engage in, so I can understand why so many turned to swimming as an acceptable alternative. I really admire the Olympic swimmers you discussed (Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie), for their ability to challenge the link between women competing in sport and a sense of ‘modesty’. I would be curious to learn about how they impacted the women’s Olympic swimming scene (at least in Australia) after they raced. Do you know whether increasing amounts of women were allowed to complete after them?

    This topic must have been such a fun way to investigate how clothing has an impact on individuals place in society!


    • candicedwyer says:

      Thanks for your comments Greta – I agree with you, I definitely took it for granted that I can wear whatever I want especially when going to the beach.

      It was a great topic to research about especially because of the clothing and seeing what was considered immodest then was extremely eye opening.

      Fanny and Mina endured 8 months to finally be allowed to swim at the Olympic Games. In response to your question, it looks as though they were the most successful women’s team to go to the Olympics. They only competed in the 1912 games because of WW1. By the time the 1920s games rolled around both women weren’t swimming competitively. In 1920 there was only one women swimmer and she did not manage to place. 1924 no women swimmers competed. In fact it was not until 1932 that Australia won a medal in the women’s swimming (but this could also be due to the depression). To be honest I am not sure why there were such low numbers of women competed until the 1930s but if anything the numbers decreased in the amount of swimmers who went to the Olympics.

      I have included this below link – it has an interview with Mina Wylie highlighting her experiences by the Australian public both before and after the Olympic Games. It really is a great listening!


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