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“The women of Rehoboth, particularly those of the younger set,’ the Newark Post, reported on Aug. 6, 1919, “are enjoying perfect freedom as to their dress on the beach.

“Whether in bare knees or without stockings … there is no policeman or other minion of the law to shoo them off, or tell them to be more careful the next time they come out to bathe. They feel relieved at being able to go out on the beach in any manner of clothes they happen to have without the approval of the police.”

In the late 19th century, when people first began to flock to the Delaware coast to enjoy a dip in the ocean, few people owned specialized clothing for a splash in the surf.

The first 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, slippers and hats.

Such beachwear made it nearly impossible to move about in the water, much less swim.

As the popularity of splashing in the surf grew, bathing suits began to shrink, and some people were shocked at what they considered scandalous beach attire.

In the early 20th century, some vacationers at Rehoboth were pushing the bounds of the accepted standards of modesty, and in 1905, the resort’s commissioners decreed that it was 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.”

After World War I ended in 1918, American soldiers who had served in Europe returned home with stories of women dressed in scandalous outfits on French beaches; and soon American women were adopting abbreviated swimwear that would have shocked their parents.

Crowds of visitors came to the Boardwalk and Beach during Memorial Day Weekend in Rehoboth Beach.

According to the Newark Post, “The [Rehoboth] town commissioners some time ago, hired a policeman who tried to regulate the style of women’s bathing suits. He got into serious trouble in a short time and finally resigned.

“This idea of bare legs is approved on other states, particularly in the West, and Rehoboth, if one is to judge the beach by the style as worn by the bathers, is now like the resorts of California.

“One Western woman said here yesterday that it requires only a little experience to show how much better it is to go in swimming or lolling in the ocean when not burdened by a lot of unnecessary clothing.”

By 1921, the Roaring ‘20s were well underway, and the Wilmington Evening Journal reported on July 2, 1921, “This year bathing costumes are prettier than ever — and each season styles grow more practical. Some people frown and protest they grow more immodest with each succeeding season; these are the folk who held up their hands in horror when tunic and trunk swimming suits began to be worn by women, four or five summers ago.”

Michael Morgan
Michael Morgan

A short time later, the Evening Journal, reported on July 15,1922, “Staid old residents of Rehoboth Beach … stood agape Thursday night when one of the hotels staged a ‘bathing suit dance.’

“The guests arrived dressed for bathing and spent the evening dancing in their bathing suits. The dance was followed by a beach party, and ended with the party taking a dip in the ocean.”

The old generation may have been horrified by the beach dance and party, but there was “no policeman or other minion of the law to shoo them off.”

Principal sources

Newark Post, Aug. 6, 1919

Delaware Coast Press, April 1, 1998.

Evening Journal, July 2, 1921; July 15,1922

Rehoboth Beacon, July 15, 1899.

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This article originally appeared on Salisbury Daily Times: Shrinking bathing suits shocked Rehoboth’s staid old residents

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