“One-piece bathing suits that leave practically nothing to the imagination,” the Wilmington Sunday Morning Star reported in 1924, “and two-piece affairs, that many considered add even more to the viewpoint of the female form, are the vogue rather than extraordinary. The young people and the liberal-minded call them chic. The elderly women turn aside and say, ‘shocking.’”
When Rehoboth was established, few people owned specialized clothing for a quick dip in the ocean, and the early ocean bathers entered the water wearing garments adapted from their everyday clothes.
Men and women wore bathing attire that covered the torso and extended to the elbows and knees. Women also wore bloomers, stockings and hats. Some women were dressed in smock-like gowns that reached to their ankles. Modest ladies sewed weights into the hem of these loose-fitting garments to keep them from floating up and exposing the legs.
It goes without saying that the combination of bloomers, stockings, and other paraphernalia that people wore for a dip in the surf made it nearly impossible to move about in the water, much less swim.
By the beginning of the 20th century, beach attire had shrunk to the point where people could actually swim in the surf. Adventurous vacationers appeared on the beach dressed in outfits that scandalized those who retained their strict Victorian attitudes concerning how people should dress in public.
Rehoboth’s town commissioners reacted by attempting to restore a degree of decorum to the beach and declared it illegal, “For any person to bathe in the ocean unless clad in a bathing suit which shall cover the body from the shoulders to the knees.” Such suits were to be, “of material of suitable texture not to appear vulgar when wet.”
Rehoboth’s bathing suit regulations, however, did not deter beachgoers in the Roaring ‘20s from dressing in tight-fitting jerseys and trunks that left the legs bare.
On July 20, 1924, the Wilmington Sunday Morning Star, asked, “Does Rehoboth need a bathing censor?” According to the newspaper, “Considerable zest to bathing at Rehoboth Beach, which is enjoying a good season, has been added owing to the character of costumes worn by the young women, who never fail, rain or shine to take their ‘daily dip.’”
Town regulations that banned undraped bathers on Rehoboth’s streets were constantly ignored, and the Wilmington newspaper commented, “Those who have the reputation of the resort, as they express it, at heart, think there should be some sort of a censor for costumes. The idea is scoffed at by the bathers who want to wear their own idea of suits. They claim that the trunks and jerseys comply with all demands of decency, and that it gives them much greater freedom in the water.”
Rehoboth did not appoint a bathing suit censor, and the matter of proper attire on the beach simmered for over a half-dozen years.
In 1931, the Sunday Morning Star reported, “The Town Commissioners of Rehoboth have adopted an ordinance making it a violation of the law, subject to a fine of $30 for ‘any person to appear on the beach with an incomplete bathing suit.’ Just what an “incomplete bathing suit” will have to be determined later.”
Like the proposal to have a bathing suit censor, this ordinance banning “incomplete bathing suits” went unheeded. Young people continued to wear bathing attire that they consider chic, and older people continued to say “shocking!”
Delaware Coast Press, April 1, 1998.
Sunday Morning Star, July 20, 1924; July 12, 1931.