return to the water

Prior to my stroke, I was an enthusiastic swimmer. I found swimming both invigorating and relaxing: a great form of exercise and a useful way to wind down when I was busy and stressed out at work. My body and balance changed radically following my stroke, but I’ve attempted (and enjoyed) the occasional swim, mostly while on holiday. It has often been in the back of my mind that swimming should be one of the things I should try to “get back to.” But I admit I’ve found it very hard to do so. Initially, the biggest impediment was my fluctuating energy levels – it is difficult to prioritise a swim when you know that it might be all you manage to do all day. But I’ve seen real improvements in my energy over the past couple of years, and now suffer far fewer bouts of debilitating fatigue. With careful pacing of sleep and other activities, swimming three or four times a week is something I can manage. But the other serious impediment for me to go for a swim has been the act of actually getting in the water. This may sound rather trivial, but, post-stroke I’m far more wonky and unbalanced bare-foot and poolside than I am on a hill in a pair of walking boots. I’ve found the not-unlikely prospect of slipping and falling as I limp unsteadily from changing room to water pretty terrifying. So terrifying, in fact, that I admit that this is primarily what has put me off giving it a go.


But six weeks ago I bit the bullet, found a pool I liked and started swimming again. It was difficult at first – both the actual swimming, and the transition from changing room to pool – but I have not fallen over yet, and my technique is improving all the time. I am by no means as strong a swimmer as I was – I will never be as I was – but the benefits of swimming are, if anything, much greater than they ever were before my stroke. Out of the water my body feels wonky and uncomfortable, but in it, it feels unusually smooth and graceful. Over just six weeks, I’ve found my core strength and balance has improved dramatically, and the muscles in my weak left arm and shoulder are far stronger than they were. I’ve enjoyed that interesting zen-like feeling one gets when swimming laps – regulating the breath, carefully timing each stroke, each kick, each pull. A few good ideas have sparked in my head (as they often used to while I swam). Then, a few days ago, I got out of the water after a good long swim, and felt that familiar pleasant sensation of basic physical wellness that one experiences after vigorous exercise – a sensation which, I can honestly say, I have not experienced for over six years. It felt so ordinary and so normal and just so bloody amazing that I confess I had a wee cry in the car on the way home. So right now I am feeling very grateful for being able to swim, for having an accessible pool nearby that I can use, and a little annoyed at myself for not having returned to the water earlier.

Here’s an essay I wrote about women’s swimming and swimwear a few years ago. I think its an interesting time to revisit it, particularly given the way that the issue of what women choose to wear when swimming or bathing in public, has once again, become matter for weirdly heated debate. (My own firm view is that women should be able to choose to wear whatever fabrics and garments in which their bodies are comfortable, without fear of such choices being policed)


Before the Eighteenth Century, few women swam or bathed in open water. While Benjamin Franklin was an enthusiastic advocate of the benefits of swimming, ploughing up and down the Thames to much acclaim, his wife, Deborah, was so afraid of water that she wouldn’t dip her toe in. Like Deborah Read-Franklin, many early-modern women were not only unable to swim, but so terrified of water that they refused to travel anywhere by boat.

By the time of the Regency, sea-bathing was beginning to be regarded as a healthy pursuit, and fashionable resort towns sprang up all along the English coastline. From Scarborough down to Margate, no seaside town was complete without its horse-drawn bathing machines. Like a beach hut on wheels, these elaborate changing rooms were pulled out to sea, where a set of steps enabled the appropriately-clad bather to descend from the ‘machine’ straight into the chilly English waters.


But what was the appropriate attire for nineteenth-century bathers? While men routinely swam naked, leaving their clothes waiting for them in the bathing machine, women wore an elaborate get-up that was designed to cover every inch of hair and flesh. In William Heath’s satiric print of 1829, the “Brighton Mermaids” bob about uneasily in sodden smocks and caps. Women bathers soldiered on in cumbersome, ankle-length swimming “flannels” until the 1860s, when a pantaloon-suit “with body and trousers cut in one” appeared. Known as the “Zoave Marine Swimming Costume” this get up apparently secured “perfectly liberty of action and does not expose the figure.” (The “Zoave” were a French Light-Infantry regiment with a distinctive bloomered uniform). Fashioned from “stout brown holland or dark blue serge with scarlet braid trimming” the “Zoave” costume may well have been appropriate for a tour of military duty, but did not make swimming any easier for Victorian women.


By the 1890s, bathing costume design took a ‘radical’ turn by shortening or eliminating the sleeves of women’s costumes. Yet female bathers were still encumbered by the “princess suit”: loose pantaloons worn to knee or below-knee length; one or two pairs of stockings; and a skirt, either detatchable or built-in. While men frolicked on the beaches in body-freeing combinations, women were covered up from head to toe, and restricted in the water by the yards of fabric required to maintain respectability. Given the constant effort needed to even float in such an outfit, it is no wonder that, as the twentieth-century turned, very few women were able to swim at all.


In the early years of the Twentieth Century, women’s swimming became a topic of hot debate, following the horrible disaster that befell the New York steamer “General Slocum”. Packed with churchgoers on a Sunday outing, the excursion boat boat caught fire, and almost a thousand women and girls were drowned in the East River, a mere 50 yards from shore. For these women, the difference between life and death for was marked by their inability to swim. On both sides of the Atlantic women’s amateur swimming and life-saving associations steadily gained in popularity. Organisations like the National Women’s Life Saving League in the US began to speak out about the impracticality of skirted bathing costumes, and the need for close-fitting, stretchy swimming combinations. But perhaps no Edwardian woman did more to revolutionise the swimsuit than Annette Kellerman.

Born in the Sydney suburbs in 1887, Annette Kellerman began swimming therapeutically at the age of six. By the early 1900s, she was swimming competitively, and supporting her family with her prize money. In the fresh-water rivers of Australia, Kellerman set records for100 yards and the mile, before traveling to Britain, where she drew massive crowds during a grueling seventeen-mile swim along the river Thames. Kellerman tried and failed to swim the the English channel, but later won spectacular races in the Seine and Danube.


Kellerman’s considerable fame was only increased by the radical “unitard” that she wore for her demonstration swims. This costume, reputedly of her own devising, combined a pair of woollen stockings with a boy’s jersey bathing suit. Worn with negative ease, her black unitard clung to the contours of her body, and caused an instant sensation. Kellerman was completely nonplussed by the attention drawn by her swimsuit, famously remarking that “I can’t swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothesline.” She refused to wear skirted bathing costumes, dismissing them as a hazard that had “caused more deaths than drowning by cramps.”

As the “Australian Mermaid,” Kellerman rapidly became a vaudeville attraction, and took her act to America. In 1908, after attempting to go for a swim in her woollen unitard on a beach in Massachusetts, she was arrested for indecency. In court, Kellerman stated that the skirted bathing outfits that women were supposed to wear were only appropriate for beachside paddling. Such costumes effectively prevented women from swimming at all and attempting any sort of watery activity while wearing one was, she said, like “swimming in a ball gown.” The judge agreed, and dismissed the case against her. Like everything Kellerman did, her court case attracted massive publicity. Headlines and feature articles followed her story: if women were to be encouraged to swim, then surely they needed outfits that enabled rather than restricted movement?


But despite the publicity that Kellerman drew, things were relatively slow to change. The idea of women swimming at all was still anathema to many, and female swimmers who sought to practice competitively were routinely faced with hostility and prejudice from the athletic establishment. Though, in the 1904 Olympic games, women had participated in golf and tennis events, the IOC were not keen to take women’s competitive sport any further. The president, Pierre de Coubertin wrote:

“This feminine semi-olympiad is impractical, uninteresting, ungainly, and, I do not hesitate to add, improper. It is not in keeping with my concept of the Olympic Games . . . the solemn exaltation of male athleticism, based on internationalism, by means of fairness, in an artistic setting, with the applause of women as a reward.”

Coubertin thought that women should appreciate the endeavours of men without ever competing themselves. But happily, he had his opponents: the 1912 Olympic Games was being held in Stockholm. Much to Coubertin’s chagrin, the liberal Swedes were keen to extend many events to female athletes, including swimming. The American AAU refused to recognise the legitmacy of women’s competitive sport, and did not send any female athletes to participate in the games.


But women swimmers hit the Olympic headlines, when the British women’s team won the 4 x100m relay in their modern, purpose-designed, lightweight silk-jersey suits. This photograph caused something of a stir.

As was often the case with transformations in women’s clothing, the reform of female swimwear was closely linked to other kinds of political reform. In 1915, under the leadership of Charlotte Epstein, the American National Women’s Life Saving League began to officially support the suffrage movement, and staged a “Suffrage Rescue Race” at Manhattan Beach. The participants wore Kellerman-style swimsuits and Votes for Women sashes. Through Epstein’s efforts, in 1917, the AAU was forced to formally recognise swimming as a women’s sport, but did so with many limitations:

All women contestants in swimming events must wear bathing suits of a black texture that covers their bodies from shoulder to toe. . . in every event, the women swimmers must wear bath robes that cover them entirely until just before they dive off.

(Boyle and Bleibtrey with two friends)

This was not enough for Epstein and her followers, who now advocated the use of shorter, one piece woollen jersey swimsuits for training. In 1919, two prize-winning American swimmers, Charlotte Boyle and Ethelda Bleibtrey, staged a public protest at Manhattan Beach. The two women removed their black stockings, and set off for the water dressed in one-piece woollen swimsuits, where they were promptly arrested for “naked swimming.” Much like Kellerman, their case drew massive publicity, and, under pressure, the New York authorities freed the women from jail. The strength of public support for Boyle and Bleibtrey meant that American women were finally free to swim bare-legged in public.


Perhaps no manufacturer did more to popularise swimming for American women than Jantzen. Founded as a woollen mill for manufacture of socks and sweaters, the Portland Knitting Company was owned by three enthusiastic outdoorsmen, among whom was Carl Jantzen. In1913, one of Jantzen’s friends asked him if the mill might be able to produce a densely-knitted but lightweight woollen suit suitable for winter rowing. In response, Jantzen developed a worsted spun, rib-stitched jersey fabric that rapidly became the standard of modern masculine sportswear. By the early ‘20s, and renamed Jantzen Knitting Mills, the Portland company cashed in on the dramatic shift in fashion that was beginning to become apparent in women’s swimsuits.


Jantzen developed a women’s swimsuit fashioned from the same tight-knit ribbed wool jersey that they had previously used for men’s sportswear. These swimsuits, with their in-built shorts, and comfortable, stretchy fabric, were carefully fitted to the wearer by their weight in pounds. The Jantzen knitted swimsuits were both eminently wearable and incredibly popular. It is no exaggeration to say that, in the early 1920s they helped an entire generation of American women to get into the water.


(reproduced courtesy  of Vintage Traveller, with many thanks)

With the slogan “the suit that changed bathing to swimming” and a striking logo featuring a woman clad in a streamlined red suit, diving in an elegant, modernist curve, Jantzen achieved massive success. The company was a vocal advocate of public swimming pools, and the benefits of swimming for women, and often used the language of liberation in its marketing.

“In 1918, Jantzen saw a nation paddling around the edges. Baggy skirts impeded swimming. Fabrics stretched and sagged. Today, the newer freedom of the Jantzen is the choice of millions . . .”

If Jantzen was the suit, then wool jersey was the fabric that finally changed bathing to swimming. Many women today may have bad memories of wearing knitted swimsuits as a child, and many more might have doubts about the suitability of knitted wool jersey for swimwear at all. In the 1920s, though, the tightly ribbed wool swimsuits that were developed by Jantzen, and later, by Australian company, Speedo, really were truly revolutionary. For more than a century, women had been forced to splash about in heavy woven skirts and full-length stockings that rather hindered than helped their athletic abilities. But in the 1920s, they could finally, actually swim, thanks to the wool jersey suits that did not restrict physical movement, but enabled it.


In 1926, American swimmer, Gertrude Ederle, became the first woman to swim the English channel. She swam in a two-piece wool-jersey suit, and reached shore in a record-breaking fourteen hours, thirty-one minutes — more than two hours faster than the previous record, which had been set by a man who had been swimming completely naked. Ederle’s groundbreaking swim in her daring jersey suit finally proved to many that women could be aquatic athletes on an equal scale with men. By the time she returned to New York, she had become a national celebrity and her ticker-tape parade was watched kerbside by more than two million people.

(Gertrude Ederle prior to her successful English Channel swim of 1926. She shakes the hand of Lillian Cannon, who had previously tried and failed to swim the channel)

Today, in a world in which swimwear manufacture is dominated by highly-developed technical fabrics, it is very easy to overlook the significance of the modern swimsuit revolution — the moment when “bathing” really did change to “swimming” for many women. But the simple lines and stretchy rib of the 1920s jersey swimsuit marked an important shift in feminist history, as well as the history of fashion.

Motherwell ladies swimming team, 1920.