Who Needs Sunscreen When You Have Flannel Bloomers?

30, June 2010

As I was prepping my kids for a trip to the pool last week, I silently paid homage to the newish invention the swim shirt. Because my sons can (and thankfully will) wear a shirt into the water, I don’t have to spend 20 minutes slathering their torsos with sunscreen or worrying that they’ll still somehow get burned in that one spot that I missed.

Woman's bathing suit consisting of red and black vertically striped flannel dress and bloomers, ca. 1888. Shown with bandana. Missouri History Museum.

It made me think of some bathing suits that we have in the collections of the History Museum. When you go back to the 1800s, you notice that women’s suits left everything to the imagination. In the first half of that century, women literally covered their entire bodies in bathing dresses. By the 1880s they were revealing a bit more of their arms. Still, they wore bloomers under their knee-length skirts and wool stockings under those! The red striped flannel suit in our collection illustrates this. Back then it didn’t have anything to do with the deterioration of the ozone layer and the lack of SPF 55, but with Victorian modesty.

In the mid-1900s swimsuits started getting smaller. Those were also the days when we did not apply sunscreen—rather, we rubbed baby oil on ourselves to invite the sun’s scorch. Now in the 2010s, there’s no doubt of the sun’s harmful rays. So we’re slowly doing a 360 and returning to those days of more body coverage. No more Speedos and bikinis for kids these days; most people at the pool are wearing swim shirts with their long trunks or bathing skirts. It’s funny how we’ve come around. As we say around here, history repeats itself. Hopefully, sunburns don’t.

—Lauren Mitchell, Senior Editor

Click here for a fun website that looks at ladies’ swimsuits through the decades of the 1800s.