“It’s Going to be a Stunner”: Feminine Swimsuits in 1887

The first swimsuits for women were far from the brief costumes now seen at beaches and swimming pools. Female swimmers once wore bloomers and black stockings into the water. Later costume modifications included a blouse and trousers with a skirt attached. A ruffled cap or a straw hat completed the ensemble. The Omaha Daily Bee on May 9, 1887, described the female bathing costumes then worn at Lake Manawa, in Council Bluffs. The Bee said:

“In a short time from now the last year’s bathing suits will be seen in numbers hanging out to the air; the buttons will be secured more firmly, and missing ones will be replaced. Already this early many are thinking of novelties in bathing suits and it is thought that a larger variety of the finer suits will be seen on the beach than ever.

“‘I’m remodeling my bathing suit and expect to have a perfect beauty when I get it completed. Then I want you to see it and express your opinion before I wear it. It’s going to be a stunner, I tell you,’ was the remark made by a young lady yesterday morning to her lady friend as they were about to enter one of the churches. Many ladies are thinking of doing likewise, but whether there is to be a change in the style of the cut of last season remains to be seen. It is stated that many ladies who wore the short skirt attachment last year, propose to do away with it this season and appear in simply the blouse and trowsers [sic], as the skirt interferes with swimming and is too heavy for comfort.

“In many instances it has been worn for propriety, and then has been so long that one could not attempt to swim. It is not a necessary garment by any means and can with propriety be discarded if the ladies so desire. At the famous resorts in the east it is seldom seen unless the wearer is a person who has no inclination to learn to swim, but those who are at all anxious to become swimmers invariably discard the skirt attachment.”

Lake Manawa was only one of a number of area resorts at which Omaha women could enjoy swimming and other water sports. The Bee on June 28, 1893, announced that Courtland Beach would be open to the public “Today, Tomorrow, All Summer.” Particularly popular for large Sunday school and church picnics, Courtland Beach also featured fishing and swimming.

Fashionable swimming attire that included attached skirts continued to be worn by some female swimmers at Lake Manawa, Courtland Beach, and other area resorts for several more decades. The Omaha World-Herald on July 27, 1902, noted: “A picturesque and striking bathing costume on the [Courtland] beach yesterday was a blue taffeta silk skirt, the seams laced with white silk cord; a white silk shirt waist, blue collar and cuffs and blue hose with white toes and heels.”

This view of fashionable bathing costumes from Marshall & Snelgrove, Oxford Street, London, in August 1887, is from Ladies’ World, a low-priced, mass-market magazine for women.

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