From the August 5, 1955 edition of the Vineyard Gazette by Mabel Gillespie:

Bathing suits have certainly come a long way in my lifetime. Or do I mean gone? I remember a picture of me as a very small child about the turn of the century sitting on the East Chop Beach in a bathing suit. I am sure my mother made it. The material looked like striped outing flannel. There were short sleeves and the pant legs came below the knees. There was no skirt but, believe me, a gal had to be very young to go without one. As if to counteract the union suit aspect, the garment was festooned with ruffles.

At the time of my outing flannel debut, women wore bathing garments like dresses except that the skirts were a little shorter. I don’t remember any high collared suits, but backs and chests were thoroughly concealed. Underneath the visible part of the suit was worn a separate garment consisting of a chemise-like top to which were attached voluminous bloomers. The material of the bloomers and the outer part of the suit was always dark in color. Henry B. Hough in Martha’s Vineyard, Summer Resort, tells of a notorious “woman in red” who appeared on the Cottage City bathing beach in a red suit in the gay nineties or earlier. She was born twice times thirty years too soon.

Methods of keeping the female hair dry were complicated. Hair, you know, was long and abundant in those days. Rubber caps were worn, with all sorts of devices to keep the water from seeping under the edges. But rubber must have been considered as naked as epidermis, because the caps had to be covered with bandanna triangles in bunchy knots above the forehead.

Finally, women wore stockings with bathing suits, black of course. It was a sign of approaching maturity when girls first succumbed to this hampering custom and that served to mitigate the inconvenience. The well-to-do wore silk stockings for bathing; the less affluent had new, if not silk, bathing hosiery; and the penny pinchers wore old darned cast-offs.

Whether silk or cotton, new or old, the constant immersion in salt water tended to turn the black to a bilious brown or muddy purple. Even the black suits usually turned most unhealthy colors. Furthermore, in those days a woman usually had a suit and wore it until it disintegrated. If it didn’t get dry between swims, she had to put it on damp.

The restrictions on men’s suits were less stringent, even though shoulders and thighs were well covered. At least the lords of creation didn’t have to wear two layers of bathing garb nor be bothered with stockings.

In time women discarded the bloomer undersuit and substituted an undergarment suggesting a ballet leotard. It had built-up shoulder straps and terminated above the knees. After the first World War a cousin from California came for the summer and appeared in what was known as an Annette Kellerman. It was a sort of loose leotard with a skimpy skirt. It was shapeless and revealed nothing. Yet at the time it seemed very daring, even though stockings were worn with it.

Meanwhile, men were discarding the short sleeves that covered their shoulders and taking to suits with mere shoulder straps. There was a very practical excuse for this. I can remember how the front of my arms just above the armpits used to get raw and sore from the constant rubbing of my suit sleeves as I swam steadily.

At long last the time came when women took to rolling bathing stockings below their knees. It was undoubtedly the telling touch of freedom that started things on the way to Rossy Romper and Dangerous Curves.

It wasn’t long before stockings were unheard of on bathing beaches. Then followed the evaporation of the uppers of men’s suits. The latter started going gradually, finally getting to a sort of moth-eaten stage across the back and under the arms where there was a network of criss-crossed straps. The sunburn patterns must have been fantastic. At that period some men, at East Chop anyway, used to wander off toward the jetties. They had little hide-outs in the low dunes or in clumps of beach grass where they could lower their uppers and acquire an even sun tan.

The shrinkage of bathing suits finally reached the irreducible limit. In civilized society swimming garb can’t disappear completely like Cheshire Cats, leaving nothing but grins on the faces of the bathers. But fashion designers must be continually coming up with something new. Since they can’t whittle away any more from water wear they decided to tickle the public fancy by giving names to the garments.

The temperature at breakfast time this morning was 80 degrees. While I have been writing it has risen to 90. If I could dip my steaming body in Vineyard waters I’d be willing to wear outing flannel ruffles. But, being a grandmother, I wouldn’t consider Dangerous Curves. Not today, anyway. But if we have much more of this weather I might be driven to it.

Compiled by Hilary Wall