Swimming Back in Time: A Look Back at Palm Beach Bathers

 

They look as if they might be taking a cue from the Georges Seurat painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte: the umbrellas, the hats, the modesty-minded skirts sweeping the ground. Here, in a black-and-white photograph of bathers captured sometime between 1900 and 1915 along the Palm Beach shoreline, it’s a wonder what it must have felt like in the constricting sartorial codes of the day, even for those seeking a carefree day at the beach. A suntan was rather gauche at the time, and any hint of skin from the ankle on up definitely was. In fact, for years it was quite customary for women to add weights to the bottom of their bathing apparel, lest the wind kick up those skirts.

It would be another 30 or so years before the world would be scandalized by Jacques Heim’s Atome, the tiny two-piece swimsuit known as the “world’s smallest,” and the precursor to the even tinier Bikini. But fashion, that indicator and sometimes driving force of social progress, is forever changing, and changing us along with it. Though today’s Palm Beachers would hardly be shocked by dangling strings and deeply browned skin—and might even wear them with a badge of honor—one thing probably remains the same: that wonderful feeling you get watching those soothing Florida waves.