How to collect vintage swimwear

What to look for when buying classic bathing suits and other memorabilia from the life aquatic

A vintage rubber ring in pink and white, with marine life motifs
Published: June 26th, 2014 at 12:24 pm

From the bathing machines of the 1800s via the glorious lidos of the 1930s, bathing – and the items associated with it – has come a long way. Joan Gurney, a lifelong collector of vintage swimwear, explains what to look for when buying classic costumes and other swimming memorabilia.

  • Pre-World War II costumes are scarce but there are still plenty of costumes and bikinis from the Fifties and Sixties to be had. Expect to pay anything from several pounds upwards, depending on where you buy. I once found a 1920s artificial silk costume with dazzling diagonal orange, yellow and black stripes (pictured right) that had been altered to be used as a harlequin fancy dress!
  • Don't assume that skirted costumes were only for women – men's costumes also often retained a skirt as a built-in modesty piece.
  • Postcards can cost anything from 50p to £50 depending on rarity and whether they are photographic or artistic. Look out for specialist postcard fairs in your area or track down postcard dealers at antiques shows.
  • Inflatable water-wings and waist-rings from the early 1900s, made of closely woven cotton, can occasionally be found but rubber rings from the 1930s are much more commonly available (see image below).
  • Look out for vintage china dishes and plates featuring swimming motifs.
  • German bisque swimmer figurines prior to 1900 and art deco swimmers will not leave you much change from £100.
  • Hunt out antique and vintage stick-pins and brooches featuring swimmers and swimming motifs. Prices vary.
  • There's an amazing array of other items featuring swimming motifs. In particular, keep an eye out for stamps, pencils, pens, combs, penknives, knitting and sewing patterns, and cigarette cases, particularly from the 1920s. Car radiator mascots are rare and highly sought-after.
  • Events, such as swimming club centenaries and competitions, often have attractive souvenirs. I have a silk scarf with a swimming motif from the Olympic Games of 1956 in Melbourne.

Photographs: Full Stop Photography


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