Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  March 29, 2020

Wool: the unexpected material used in historical swimwear

by Marella Alves dos Reis

When we think of wool, we think of it as a material chiefly found in jumpers, socks and scarves; garments designed to keep us warm and insulated. It is not a material that we regularly find in our swimwear. However, in the 1930s, when swimming and the creation of swimwear was becoming increasingly popular, wool was the material commonly used in the making of these garments (figure 1). This is due to the commonly held belief of the time that wool was a good material to use in close-fitting clothing, like swimwear, due to its elasticity. However, when wet it became very heavy, thus turning out not to be the most ideal material for making swimwear (1). Nevertheless, out of the available materials of the time, wool served to be the most financially and structurally appropriate.

Moreover, due to the availability of wool, and the re-emergence of knitting as a popular hobby, it meant that people at home were able to knit their own swimwear (2) often using fashion magazines for inspiration. Although swimming was not an activity accessible to all, as only a certain few could afford to go on holiday, the process of making your own swimwear meant that you did not have to factor in the cost of buying a swimming costume, making it more accessible. A more expensive - but more streamlined - alternative material to wool was silk. It became prominent in competitive swimming, but due to the high price, was not something that many could afford.

It is also important to explore the beginnings of the big swimwear companies that are present in our current society. One of the most renowned and popular is ‘Speedo’, which actually began as a knitwear factory, set up by Alexander MacRae, a Scottish man who emigrated to Australia. His company, originally named ‘Fortitude’, took off by making socks for the Australian Army during World War I; it was only after this that the company began to make swimwear (3). This shows how important wool actually was to swimwear, and to the industry itself. Without it, we may not have had the same developments in the making of swimwear and may not have the sleek designs that we now enjoy when swimming.

With the development of new man-made materials, the swimwear industry moved from wool on to fibres such as nylon or polyester. These new materials were desirable due to their elasticity and durability and became established as the most convenient and suitable materials to use in swimwear (figure 2). They dominated the industry for decades, and still do; the majority of our swimwear is made from man-made materials. However, now things are starting to change. Due to the recent shift in the collective consciousness towards environmental awareness and sustainability, natural fibres, such as wool, are slowly making their way back into our swimwear. Although these man-made fibers are ideal for skintight swimwear, they are in no way environmentally friendly. They are all essentially plastics (4), releasing microplastics into the atmosphere when washed. Therefore, there is now a growing demand for sustainable swimwear, with many looking to wool as the answer.

However, as the desire for sustainable swimwear is a relatively new phenomenon, although there are strides being made in this area, there is no real natural alternative yet to the man-made fibres with the same qualities of elasticity and durability. It is only a matter of time before a natural alternative will be developed with those key qualities that we demand in a swimming costume, but until then, we will have to choose between a stretchy and durable synthetic costume, or a natural one which, like the ones of the past, fails to hold its original shape when wet.

References:

(1) ‘The V&A Collections’, Bathing Costume. The Victoria and Albert Museum. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O108372/bathing-costume-neyret/ [accessed 21 January 2020]

(2) Hayley Wolfcale, ‘The History of Swimwear’, SwimSwam, 2014. https://swimswam.com/the-history-of-swimwear/ [accessed 22 January 2020]

(3) ‘The Speedo Story: Explore our History’, Speedo https://www.speedo.com/uk/en/heritage.html [accessed 21 January 2020]

(4) ‘Merino wool swimwear - the pros and cons’, Swim/sustainable, 2019. https://swimsustainable.com/merino-swimwear-pros-and-cons/ [accessed 22 January 2020]

  • Woollen bathing costume, 1945 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
  • Polyester and Elastane blend swimming costume, 2019 © Speedo