How Vancouver Created the Modern Swimsuit

Back in the 19th century, there was no such thing as a swimming suit. In fact, most people didn't go to the beach to swim, they went to relax by the water and soak up some sun. Hence the term 'bathing' suit. The majority of these suits were made out of wool and would become incredibly uncomfortable, itchy and heavy when they got wet - which kind of made them useless for swimming. 

Look at this picture of English Bay beach from the 1890s:

CVA 1376-188

There are people in the water, but they are almost all young children. See how nearly everyone is wearing a suit or a dress? That's a pretty extreme difference to what you'd see on this beach today! 

Enter Jantzen Swimsuits who set up a plant in Vancouver in 1925. Jantzen's line-up of swimwear made it possible for people to actually go swimming and was one of the main reasons that the term changed from bathing suit to swimsuit. One of their slogans for many years was 'the Suit that Changed Bathing to Swimming.' And that's exactly what it did. 

The Jantzen plant on Kingsway made many of the swimsuits seen on our beaches through the 20th century and employed many Vancouverites. The plant was closed in 1997. 


Rose Marie Reid swimsuit models, 1950s. CVA 1184-2396.

In 1938, swimsuit designer Rose Marie Reid began her career in Vancouver when her husband complained about how wool bathing suits would become uncomfortable and heavy when wet. Reid created a pair of trunks out of an old duck-fabric coat and a new trend was born.

By 1946, Reid’s company had over $800,000 in sales and made 50% of all the swimming suits sold in Canada. Her career was so successful that in 1955 Sports Illustrated named her the Designer of the Year.

These are just a couple of ways that Vancouver helped change the prudish wool suits of the 1890s to the cheeky and revealing fashions of the late 20th century!

Learn more at Babes & Bathers: History of the Swimsuit opening June 28.