bathing costume

Homemade Garments in Museum Collections: 1930s Hand–Knitted Bathing Suits

In the 1930s, there was a popularity for hand–knitted bathing suits, particularly the fashion for more streamline suits with halter neck and low–back designs that occurred with the health and beauty trends that made beach leisure attractive. Although it was cheaper to hand–knit one than purchase a machine–knitted suit, they were nonetheless notorious for being uncomfortable to wear as they would sag when wet and be sand–traps when dry. As garments they have a place in the history of knitting and interwar beachwear, yet only three examples were found across three museum collections in the South of England, where machine–knitted examples were often more abundant.This blog post will consider why hand–knitted bathing suits are not numerous in museum collections and discuss the individuality of the three hand–knitted bathing suits found.

There are two key reasons why few hand–knitted bathing suits survive in museum collections. The first is due to them being made from wool. Woollen garments have a poor survival rate due to their vulnerability of being damaged by moths. They also tend to be unravelled in times of need; with the 1930s having close proximity to the Second World War, many could have been unravelled in order to knit items for soldiers as part of the war effort. The second is due to how hand–knitted bathing suits were made by ordinary women in an everyday production of knitting clothes within the home and often for economic necessity. Fashion and design historian Cheryl Buckley argued that in the past museums have often privileged garments by named designers rather than those made within the home. This perceived hierarchy of textile items collected by museums could explain why only three examples of knitted bathing suits have been found in museum collections so far.

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