Until recently, old swimwear was usually found in attics or flea markets; but people across America are rediscovering the forgotten charm of bathing suits designed to leave almost everything to the imagination. Interior designers and homeowners are framing vintage swimsuits and using them to dress up nearly every room of the house, and their appeal is undeniable. Something about their shape commands attention — almost as if the original owner were daintily standing in the room. Pam Fierro, a vintage bathing suit expert and dealer, says that the suits are beautifully designed cultural artifacts.
To understand how old swimwear migrated from the pool to the living room, you have to know a bit of backstory.
Swimsuits 1: Mary Jo Bowling, original photo on Houzz
This woman, Annette Kellerman, was a professional swimmer and feminist who single-handedly launched a bathing suit revolution. “In the early 1900s, women had to wear dresses, leggings and even shoes in the water,” says Fierro. Kellerman, who had unsuccessfully tried to swim the English Channel three times, advocated strongly for a fitted one-piece suit.
In 1907 she was arrested on indecency charges in Massachusetts for wearing such a thing. The resulting publicity helped her launch a line of swimwear and ensured her and fitted one-piece bathing suits places in history.
Swimsuits 2: Traditional Bathroom, original photo on Houzz
Fierro says that although many people buy old swimsuits to wear in vintage-inspired beauty pageants, most people are collecting them — and it seems many collectors want to showcase them in a frame, such as this suit in a project by Tom Stringer Design Partners.
“Because of the high arm holes, I’d guess that this is a women’s suit is from the 1920s,” says Fierro. “The little skirt was called a modestly panel, and in the 1920s, men’s suits had them too.” She says that back then, suits were usually dark colored and made of wool that became stretched out and heavy when wet.
Swimsuits 3: Kate Jackson Design, original photo on Houzz
Fierro notes that in the 1920s, swimming was recognized as a sport and people acknowledged the health benefits of the activity. For the first time, men and women swam together in public places. Not only that, but many suits of the era were unisex.
Fierro says the bathing suit in this living room by Kate Jackson Design is clearly from the 1960s. “In that era swimwear became more like underwear, with corset boning to slim and shape and bra tops that gave a bombshell bust,” she says. It’s that structure that can make the suits from this time hard to frame; Fierro recommends removing the padding to make them thinner and easier to display.
Swimsuits 4: Contemporary Living Room, original photo on Houzz
This pool house by Laura Martin Bovard shows what Fierro says are his-and-her suits. “You can tell from the cutouts on the side in the suit on the left that it’s a man’s suit from the late 1920s,” she says. “In that era men began showing off their muscles.” She says the other suit appears to be from the 1940s. Both suits are from Petrie Point Designs.
This suit — which probably belonged to a woman in the 1920s — is framed in the optimal way. “You want to have a frame with depth, like a shadow box,” says Fierro. “You also want to have it framed with archival materials.” Fierro notes that suits should be professionally cleaned and repaired before going under glass. “Moth bites and nibbles only get worse over time,” she says. “You want to send it to a professional cleaner and restorer — I usually recommend Madame Paulette in New York.”
Swimsuits 5: Corynne Pless, original photo on Houzz
The framed bathing suit in this kitchen by James McAdam Design looks like a two-piece, but Fierro says it’s a single garment that buttons at the shoulder.
The rising popularity of the items has made them pricier; you can find swimsuits from the 1970s and 1980s for under $100, but suits from the 1920s can cost as much as $500. But Fierro says the construction of the earlier pieces makes them enduring keepsakes. “The old fabrics and construction methods are so superior,” she says. “If you care for them properly, they will last.”
Swimsuits 6: James McAdam Design, original photo on Houzz
She adds that the investment is in a cheer-building statement piece. “When displayed in rooms, swimsuits are visual eye candy,” says Fierro. “There’s something about them that just makes people happy.”
Swimsuits 7: Beach Vintage, original photo on Houzz