Cotton or stockinette? Old and new swimming costumes at the Arlington Baths

In the early 20th century everyone wore the same regulation swimming costumes at the Arlington Baths.

In 1909 the Ladies committee agreed that women’s costumes “…shall be of Turkey red twill, and of patterns approved by the committee.”

Turkey red was a dying process that produced a strong red colour that withstood frequent washing, and the Vale of Leven was a major producer of Turkey red fabrics and yarn. The National Museums of Scotland website has more about the production process and these factoriesTwill is a kind of weave that makes for a sturdy fabric

We think these costumes were one-piece swimsuits with short sleeves and bloomers, purchased from a specific shop selected by the Club. This is a replica made by one of our members of her mother’s Arlington Baths Club bathing costume from the early 20th century.

It’s made of thick cotton which must have become pretty heavy when it was wet. It’s fastened over the shoulders with tapes and buttons.

Photo of a replica swimming costume made of red cotton with short sleeves displayed on a tailor’s dummy, seen from the side and top. White tape from the back of the costume and buttoned to the front goes over the shoulders to hold the front and back together over. It has white tape sewn around the edges of the chest yoke and the outside edges of the sleeves. A capital C is embroidered in the visible bottom corner of the chest piece.
Replica of an Arlington ladies’ swimming costume from early 20th century

But after the First World War there was a move to wear less bulky and more streamlined costumes made of lighter fabrics.

In October 1920, the Ladies Minute Book recorded that there was dissatisfaction about the quality and price of costumes. So one member was sent to gather examples and prices from other suppliers.

By December 1921 the estimates had been received, and the order for costumes was given to a shop in Glasgow called Duncan’s along with instructions that the shop prepare a sample for prospective members to see.

However, at that same meeting, there was also a discussion about changing the costumes completely…

Stockinette bathing suits

Miss Margaret Hutchison made the proposal for change. She was a long-standing member of the Baths who along with fellow swimmer Miss Ethel Perry, volunteered in 1914 to go to Serbia for six months with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. This was an organisation set up by women’s suffrage societies which had been campaigning for votes for women before the War. Were Margaret and Ethel active in the suffrage movement? We don’t yet know but it’s a tantalising thought!

“Miss Hutchison proposed that stockinette bathing suits should be adopted by the ladies, especially those who compete in the competitions.”

Ladies Minute Book , December 1921

Arlington Ladies Minute Book, Glasgow City Archives TD965/8

Competitions were taken seriously by the Arlington Baths Club members and the ladies were no exception.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes stockinette as “a soft, loosely knitted stretch fabric, formerly used for making underwear and now used for cleaning, wrapping, or bandaging” The fabric still available today for use in upholstery, although presumably the stockinette used for bathing costumes was a higher grade or greater thickness than the type shown on this website.

Photo of a man's bathing suit, tight striped shorts with red pants over the top.
Copyright BBC. See more in the article about 20th century swimming costumes. Published 22 May 2015

Stockinette is also a type of stitch in knitting. When the Ladies refer to stockinette bathing suits we’re not sure whether that means the fabric or the stitch.

This picture shows striped stockinette swimming shorts for men. There’s a lot more about the development of swimming costumes for both men and women in the BBC article: How male and female bathing suits got smaller and smaller.

In February 1922 there was further discussion by the Ladies committee about the stockinette costumes however no decision was made. But finally, in October 1922, Miss Hutchison got her way.

“It was decided that Miss Malloch should get samples of stockinette costumes in order that some should be ordered for those wishing to wear them.”

Handwritten extract from the ladies minute book saying "“It was decided that Miss Malloch should get samples of stockinette costumes in order that some should be ordered for those wishing to wear them.”
Arlington Ladies Minute Book, Glasgow City Archives TD965/8

That’s not quite the end of the story though.

The new costumes must have been popular because in 1925 the Rules were amended to ensure that anyone wearing the stockinette costumes also had the regulation Arlington ‘A’ sewn on their tummy.

Handwritten extract from the Ladies Minute Book, saying "An addition was made to Rule 12-: 'Stockinette Costumes must have affixed the regulation letter A obtainable from the Clubmaster."
Arlington Ladies Minute Book, Glasgow City Archives TD965/8

What did the new costumes look like? So far, we’ve not found any further descriptions so we’re not really sure.

We assume they must have been the Arlington regulation red and probably similar in design to some of the bathing suits in these pictures.

One thing we are sure of: they must have been much easier to swim in!

Researcher: Lucy

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