Friday, July 5, 2019

Early Life Saver Fashion Part 2

by Anita Mae Draper

Women's Life Savings Corps in Action. All heave together. Miss Alice Goodman and her sturdy Red Cross Life Savers of the San Francisco, Y.W.C.A. 1920. LOC Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., Public Domain

Continuing from my last post, Early Life Saver Fashion Part 1, let's look at the advancement of women in the same field. As people found more leisure time, those living seaside took advantage of the beaches and swimming which increased the necessity for female life savers as well as men. In America, many local Y.W.C.A.'s worked with the Red Cross to train women with various exercises similar to the men's training, so they would be ready when needed. 

The above photograph shows life savers in 1920 wearing bloomers as part of their uniform. Although we see them as bulky material that would restrict movement as well as drag one down when saturated with sea water, they were at the very least an improvement on what women had been forced to wear while swimming previously. 

Women's Life Savings Corps in Action. Throwing the bell-buoy takes practice as San Francisco girl life savers find out. Y.W.C.A. 1920. LOC Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., Public Domain

Throwing a buoy sounds like an easy exercise, but throwing it from a small bobbing rowboat can be difficult if you wish to do it with finesse and dexterity. After all, the aim needed to be on target to enable a successful rescue. Do you think the women are enjoying themselves, or could the photographer's presence be affecting them?

In my last post we showed male life savers of Hawaii with their surf boards. In this next image, we see women life savers working with an outrigger canoe in Waikiki. This would be important training due to the high surf surrounding the island which would put additional hazards to any rescue operation.

Women life savers haul up outrigger canoe at Waikiki. After practice in the surf these members of women's life saving corps pull up their boat under direction of David Kehanemoku, famous canoe man, 1920. LOC Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., Public Domain

Note the change in women's swim fashion. The caption states the year as 1920, yet there is a huge difference between the bloomers in the top image and these ones which have what I'm presuming is a panty covered by brief skirt. One of the caption dates could be in error, or perhaps it's an east coast vs west coast attitude. 

An attractive Jr. life saver with rescue buoy, 1923. LOC Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., Public Domain

Of course, the problem with this type of bathing suit is that it is similar to the old beach hut rented gowns where there is no support at all. The immodesty was the reason for the Victorian use of the portable beach hut where the genders were segregated from each other's view. But it seems that as the 20th century progressed, practicality won over modesty and decorum. 

So what do you think of this image of the 1929 St Kilda Surf Life Saving Team's swimwear uniform down in Australia? It is very similar to what the female life saver is wearing in the above photo, is it not? I actually laughed when I saw the word, Manly, tacked on at the end of the caption because I thought it referred to of the swimsuit, but after researching, I realized the team was at a carnival in the Manly suburb of Sydney, New South Wales. 

1929 St Kilda Surf Life Saving Team in a rare visit to a Sydney carnival, Manly. Public Domain from the collections of the State Library of NSW

Photos like these reassure us that groups and organizations took the leisure sport of swimming seriously at a time when the world was going through incredible social change. 

My next post on August 5, 2019 will feature the different types of life saving equipment available to life savers during this same period.


Anita Mae Draper served a 20-year term working on air bases in the communication trade of the Canadian Armed Forces before retiring to the open skies of the prairies. She uses her experience and love of history to pepper her stories of yesteryear's romance with realism as well as faith. Anita Mae Draper's published stories appear in Barbour Publishing, WhiteFire Publishing, and Guideposts Books. Readers can enrich their story experience with visual references by checking out Anita's Pinterest boards. All links available on her website at


  1. It almost looks like that last picture is a unisex option! So similar to the women! Thanks for the post.

    1. Well, that's a thought, Connie. Thanks for dropping by. :)

  2. The bloomers made me wonder how many women life guards drowned trying to rescue someone. I think the date on the photo for Hawaii was probably correct. Hawaii was a state. The temperatures made less layers of clothes acceptable. I image the swimwear there eventually got adopted by the US within a few years. After all the roaring 20s brought in the flapper style of shorter skirts and less undergarments. Fascinating article. I laughed at the manly outfit too.

    1. Good reasoning, Jubileewriter. I can't imagine swimming with bloomers on, especially these ones that would hold the water in. Thanks for sharing with us today. :)

  3. In my recent book release, Shelter Bay, which takes place in 1893, my hero joins the U.S. Life Saving Service and is based in Michigan near Traverse City. I didn't realize there was a women's unit as well. This made for interesting reading this morning.

    1. Hi, Pam. I didn't research life saving teams around the Great Lakes because they never popped up in my search. However, due to the temperatures, lake swimming wouldn't have been as prevalent throughout the calendar year as on the coasts, so I don't know how much money a community could budget on a female crew. Life savers would certainly be needed for all the boat and ship disasters, but that was more of a clothes-on encounter, not a personal hands-on one where a woman was at her most vulnerable and probably preferred to be handled by her own gender. Of course, when your life is at risk, that's usually a moot point.
      Perhaps there were mixed teams?

      Your new release sounds great. Thanks for mentioning it. :)

    2. Actually, Pam, on reflection, it wouldn't have been the community budget, but whether the community had service organizations like the Red Cross or YWCA/YMCA who were willing to support a female team.

    3. It was a division of the U.S. Coast Guard. They were stations around all the Great Lakes and also on the East Coast. Always all men.

  4. How interesting that fashion changes in such unique ways! I enjoy watching movies from the 1940's. The dress during that time was definitely different.

    1. Hi, Melissa. I enjoy watching them, too. I've never been one to spend much time getting dolled up, but there was a suave elegance to the time that started with the hair and carried through the slinky styled gowns. Even with TV shows like The Waltons, they may have been been wearing everyday simple-cut clothing, but a bit of lace and a perky embellished hat added the extra bit to bring their outfit up a notch.

      Thanks for visiting, Melissa. Note - Why am I now humming "As Time Goes By"? :)