Women’s Racing Suits in Early 20th Century

Women’s swimming suits for competition seem to have always been controversial. It was two brave Australian women who made the biggest impact on women’s swimming costumes; Annette Kellerman and Clare Dennis.

Finding a balance between a fast swim suit and societal ‘standards’ seems to be the fence where competitive swimmers sat. In fact swimming was not considered feminine but a masculine endeavour for Victorian folk.

Annette Kellerman began swimming at a young age in Sydney to strengthen her legs due to Rickets. She was one of the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel when she moved to Britain in 1907. She was 19yrs old. Although her attempt was unsuccessful she captured the public attention and was asked to perform her swim skills in front of the Royal family. Her swim suit was not ‘royalty PC’ but she would not be able to perform her swim skills in the typical heavy clothing which were designed for wading and not swimming. Swimming suits included 7 to 10 yards of fabric.

Kellerman sewed on leggings to her kneelength costume, covering herself from neck to ankles. This was ‘accepted’ by the royals and so ‘The Kellerman’ became a new fashion.

Laws did not change despite public pressure to change. A boating disaster in 1907 was the worst loss of life in America until 9-11. In the boating disaster over a thousand women and children burned to dead or drowned after the ship caught fire. The choice between jumping into the water and drowning or burning to death on ‘The General Slocum’ created demand for swimming lessons to be more available. However clothing laws made this extremely difficult in both Britain and the US.

Some societal laws even held back women from competing at an Olympic games. Women from USA in 1912 were not permitted to race due to the fact legs would be exposed, even though women were finally invited to race.

Swimming suits for women began as full length dress-like coverings including covering shoulders , mid-thigh leggings or pantaloons, and also slippers. Some swimming areas had lengths of rope coiled out to deeper water so people could get back to shore to manage in wavy conditions for non-swimmers.

The wool and flannel suits would have absorbed water and been exceptionally heavy. Kellerman called them lead weights. Suits with the shoulders covered restricts movement, additionally, a skirt around your legs, makes swimming impossible.

Swimming for women was not much more than simply wading. Going into water deep enough to swim would have been deadly.

Silk is much lighter than the wool and flannel garments that were generally available, however, once wet, the silk became transparent, so many women wore underwear underneath still making it difficult to swim but much easier than the full costume.

Britain’s winning 4x100fr relay in 1912


Women’s teams sent a chaperone with their women’s swimmers to ensure they were not harassed by men and to monitor coverings.

The photo above shows the medalists from the only individual race in 1912 for women; 100m freestyle.

A wide variety of heavy wool coverings were similar in both men and women. This photo of Duke Kanamamolko shows the similar styling.

An Australian woman, Clare Dennis, who won the 200m breaststroke in 1932 was threatened with disqualification for an inappropriate costume by having her shoulders exposed. So in 20 yrs the had been very little progress towards allowing women to race in a functional swim costume.

Clare Dennis is in the middle of the three swimmers. Girls team chaperone on the left.

Clare Dennis had quite a journey to get to the podium, fighting simply for the right to race in a suit that allowed free movement. Her journey thought started before her Olympic final.

Firstly she had to find sponsors to pay her way since there was no funding in the lean times of the depression, for the women’s team. Upon arrival she was ill, most likely from living in close proximity to a boat full of people travelling from Australia, which was an approximately 40 days sail. Then in Stockholm, she almost did not compete due to a severe infection from gashing her foot on the rudimentary starting pier. Having survived lack of funds, 40 days aboard a ship, illness and infection she then faced a protest for her swim suit inappropriateness.

Following her 200br win, there was a protest on the style of swim costume she wore. It was considered inappropriate to have shoulder blades exposed. Luckily her performance stood and swim suits for women have been shrinking ever since!


About Coach Gary

I competed in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul representing Canada and coached in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics for Great Britain. I have a degree in History and a minor degree in Psychology from University of Calgary. I have travelled extensively and have been very lucky to see so much of the world while representing Canada and Great Britain at swimming competitions. I am very proud of the fact that I coached a swimmer to become number one in the world in the fastest swimming race in 2002. I pride myself in my ability to find new and interesting ways to teach swimming. I am an accomplished artist specialising in sculpture, I have another blog called 'swimmingart' where I publish some of my swimming drawings. I have three young children; all boys. I have recently taken up painting and yoga....but not at the same time. You can see my new paintings at: https://www.artgallery.co.uk/artist/gary_Vandermeulen
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