Swim Cap Fashion Glam

...decorative utility

by Antje Wolter
Hot summer days are an invitation for many people to only wear a sweet nothing although their bodies are crying out for a lot of something. The most obvious place in the world to experience and explore such clothing habits are the lido, the lake or the beach. On extremely hot days when the air is sticky and it feels like someone holds a hair dryer right up your face, I try to avoid public places like these. I start to reminisce about old times when swim-wear still consisted of one-piece bathing suits and bathing caps for women and swimming trunks or briefs for men. We all know what happened to the one-piece suits and briefs; they were replaced by bikinis, shorts, bermudas or simply nothing. But what happened to the caps?

The swim cap - or bathing cap - used to be an accessory with two different purposes. First: caps for competitive swimmers with a clearly functional and technical aim both in material and style; and secondly: caps with a fashionable, less functional aim worn by recreational swimmers.

From time immemorial the bathing cap has always been a must-have. In the ancient world people used bands or woven nets to keep their hair dry, or alternatively it was very chic to wear complex updos. During mediaeval times, the crusaders re-invented public bathhouses in Europe as they experienced them in the Islamic world. Swimming was one of the chivalric skills, however most people went to the bathhouses for personal hygiene rather than swim. However syphilis breakouts terminated European ambitions for public bathhouses.

Even hundreds of years later bathing was considered to be completely unnecessary and dangerous. Looking back at Rococo habits this misunderstanding was still alive: noblemen and noblewomen only used powder and perfume. It was not until the 18th century when the English town Bath grew to the most famous bathing resort and medical findings changed with the Enlightenment. New ideas of health and hygiene were spread; people were advised to become more outdoorsy and started bathing outside in all open waters. They used to wear the so-called Baigneuse (french for bathing woman), which later became socially accepted and women started to wear them as a fashionable headdress, evolving into the Dormeuse (french for sleeping woman).

From 1850 on women were allowed to bath and swim in public as well. They wore a fine net cap made of waxed taffeta that later became waxed calico, or alternatively special bathing hats made of straw.
Finally, and thanks to Charles Goodyear who accidently discovered a production process for rubber in 1839, bathing caps were introduced in 1883 and were made of a rubber fabric based on caoutchouc and covered with fabric or draped with a satin or silky shawl.

Necessity became etiquette and women were expected to cover their heads by wearing a bathing cap at the beach or pool, as well as a hat in the streets. Even silent movie stars like Gloria Swanson demonstrated the bathing cap as a fashion accessory in "Teddy at the Throttle", wearing a screaming cap with a snowball look-a-like on top. Technology improved and by 1920 bathing caps were made of latex. The earliest caps had a chin strap identical to the leather pilot helmets at the time, and were therefore called "aviator style". In a New York Times article from 1920 caps were officially in fashion; a vast variety in design and shapes were presented. Caps could be purchases various applications, terms such as street caps, gypsy-caps and handkerchief effects were used to describe these accessories.

Caps in the 30s improved from a technical point of view, embossed patterns like colourful dioramas were available due to the improvements in rubber production. World War II however made rubber become a scarce commodity due to its use in the arms industry. They became a luxury product only available to the upper class.

The post-war period however experienced a resurrection of the cap, flourishing in innumerate variations in design, shape and style. Decorated caps came into vogue, and during the 1960s colourful flower petal swim caps were introduced on the fashion capitals. The vast choice of caps accentuated the importance of this fashion item. The cap was thoroughly chosen in order to fit to the women’s face, her bone structure and the make-up she would wear during the bath. The cap was an essential part of the travelling wardrobe. It was carefully chosen and packed with all the other essentials like beach dresses, bathing suits, terry onesie’s, shorts and a bolero hat. Some caps appeared like curly hair, some came with little air cushions, patterns of butterflies or seahorses, pleated caps, leaves, patels and blossoms, quillings of tulle in baby blue and vulcanized rubber; all too match the women’s style.

1968 was the end of the cap as a luxurious fashion accessory. The hippie-movement started to preach free love as well as nudity; caps were seen as a trait of the conservative and old-fashioned middle-class as well as the establishment. The caps were no longer fashion forward, they were associated with smugness and older generations.

Although the bathing cap is still seen as something from the past, something we never liked and something associated with school swimming classes, some fashion houses re-introduced them lately. Starting with Prada and their Spring/Summer collection of 2007, models were seen wearing turban caps made of duchesse silk which resembled the wrapped bathing caps very much. The turbans were combined with ultra-short silky pant-skirts and draped tops which altogether came across like a 40s bathing suit. Press and buyers were delighted; the Riviera look celebrated its return to the catwalks.

Following Prada, Miu Miu presented their Autumn/Winter 2008 collection inspired by water sports. Models not only wore simple but classic bathing caps, they were also wrapped in overalls and dresses made of neoprene which resembled vintage bathing suits. A hole in the back of the caps was introduced giving the wearer the possibility to wear a ponytail, eliminating the caps original function to protect the hair from the water, and reinforcing its importance as a fashion accessory.

The cap celebrated its return, being used in recent collections by Erin Fetherston, Sonia Rykiel as well as John Galliano. The cap is a recurrent element in their designs. Worn as a hat with sparkly sequins or as a waterproof pilot helmet look-a-like, it seems we will all be covering our heads by the beach next summer.