What to Wear at the Beach (12-17-1931)

The Chicago City Council was holding hearings.  Unemployment was high.  The schools were a mess.  The city was going broke.  Crime was everywhere.

But today, the agenda before the aldermen was really important.  They were deciding what women could wear at Chicago beaches.

Victorian bathing suits--1903 Sears catalogue

Victorian bathing suits–1903 Sears catalogue

The current dress code reflected the old-fashioned Victorian standards. When a woman went to the beach, she was expected to wear long black stockings, full bloomers, and a long-sleeve blouse. Anything less might earn her an arrest for public indecency.

Yet society was changing.  Now the council’s  special Committee on the Judiciary and State Legislation was trying to modernize the rules.  Alderman Thomas O’Grady of the 14th Ward chaired the committee.

O’Grady said that the aldermen wanted to adopt “modern specifications for proper swimming costumes.”  Health experts, athletes, and concerned citizens were being asked to give their opinions.  It seemed that two new styles of swimwear were causing controversy–the backless suit, and the brassiere-and-trunks (two piece) suit.

Chicago aldermen inspect a 1931 model bathing suit

Chicago aldermen inspect a 1931 model bathing suit

Interviewed by the Tribune, one prominent clubwoman was happy to present her views.  “The regulations should combine the maximum of comfort with decency,” she said.  “I do not like backless bathing suits.  And suits should extend two inches above the knee.”

Another woman declared that laws should be passed against white or flesh-colored suits.  As for the two-piece style, that was “unattractive and vulgar.”  It wasn’t proper to expose your stomach to the sun’s rays, no matter how healthy sunshine was.

If the skimpier bathing suits were allowed in Chicago, would nude bathing follow?  “I doubt if America will ever be that advanced,” one woman said.  “We’re probably more reserved, like the English, and I think that’s a fine thing.”

Of course, the fifty men on the council would ultimately decide the matter.  The Tribune wryly suggested that “several models appear wearing the newest suits at the aldermanic committee meeting.”  Four of the alderman thought that was a fine idea.  They were photographed with a woman wearing one of the backless suits.

When it was all over, the modern swimsuits were given official approval.  But nude bathing is still banned at Chicago’s public beaches.



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