History of swimsuits topic of Pioneer Women luncheon

Left to Right: Susan Gillis (brown wool suit); Pam Robinson (homemade denim suit); Patsy West (black cotton John Wanamaker suit) and Dr. Claire Crawford (holding a 1930's sateen swim suit made with LASTEX). Photo by: Kevin Lane

Pioneering swimsuits will be the topic at the 56th annual luncheon of the Pioneer Women of Fort Lauderdale.

The event taking place Saturday, April 20th at the historic Tropical Acres Steakhouse from 11:30 a.m to 2 p.m. will feature a program by ethno-historian Patsy West (who is also the director of the Seminole/Miccosukee Photographic Archive here in Broward County).

The presentation - titled "The Heart of the Beach: Bathing Suits" - will be about swimsuits and various social issues that have swirled around the garment throughout American history, from dress-and-pantaloon bathing costumes to Brazilian thongs.

"Looking back it is so laughable what we cound not do with our lives, with our bodies," says West. "It's so funny, it's just absolutely laughable."


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Tickets for the luncheon are $30. To order, call 954-564-3393.

West's love of Fort Lauderdale's splish-splashy lifestyle comes naturally. Her father was Everet "Cappy" West, longtime captain of the Fort Lauderdale Lifeguard Swimming Team throughout the 1920s and 1930s as well as a Tech Sargent specializing in underwater demolition during World War II.

"I spent all my life skin diving and spear fishing with him," recalls West, who has three books under her belt on the history of the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes. "My mother made him a cotton black suit. It was a bikini really, with a zipper up the side and he had a really thin Nylon cord so he could cinch it. That's what he wore. Of course for the [swimming competitions] they shaved off all their body hair and greased their bodies. They did every sort of thing to make their bodies go through the water faster. At that time it was all new and very exciting. The fabric and the suits just weren't there yet in the latter Twenties and early Thirties. The suits for girls in the Twenties were absolutely disgusting. Talk about indecent exposure. They were basically one-ply. Jantzen's, on the other hand, were really plush, but the rest were really off the wall."

Her research ranges from humorous mohair, wool and denim bathing costumes from the early 1900s ("There would be a tethered boat out in the water and women would hold on to that and they wore water wings") to the tragedy of the 1904 General Slocum boating excursion on the East River in New York where 1,360 people died after a fire broke out ("They never learned to swim").

In 1907, the Aussie professional swimmer and vaudeville star Anette Kellerman popularized the one-piece maillot swimsuit - launching the modern age of swimwear for women - even though it earned her a charge of indecency in Massachusetts.

"The public outcry at her trial dashed all those Victorian morals for good," explains West.

Locally, West says she will reference Saturday such swimming Lauderdale lore such as the Las Olas Beach Casino and Pool.

"There was a basketball court at the Casino pool and that is where a lot of these women met their husbands."