Written by Jeannie Swales
It looks like a particularly exotic and colourful sea anemone, and that may well have been the designer’s intention with this 1960s swim cap.
Until the 1950s, swim caps had been plain, sleek and functional.
Swim caps were made of rubberised fabric during the early 20th century, moving onto latex by the 1920s.
Early styles were known as aviator caps, as they resembled the leather helmets of flyers of the day, and had chin straps.
During the 1940s rubber was in demand for war materials, so swim caps became increasingly scarce - at a time when most women had a ‘permanent wave’ (later known as a perm), an expensive and time-consuming process which meant the hair required protection in the water.
Until the 1950s, swim caps had been plain, sleek and functional, but the post-war period saw decorated versions become increasingly popular, and by the 1960s, swim caps in the style of our pictured exhibit, from the Scarborough Collections, were all the rage - think of all those wonderful pictures of movie stars of the period, especially Elizabeth Taylor, looking impossibly glamorous in them.
Contrary to popular opinion, a swim cap’s primary purpose is not keeping the hair dry, but reducing water drag, keeping a swimmer’s hair tidy and preventing hair from getting into the pool, which can both block drains and is unhygienic.
This meant that in the late 60s and early 70s, when many men wore their hair long, many swimming pool operators required swim caps for male swimmers with long hair. When fashions changed in the late 70s, wearing swim caps became less common, only to gain popularity again in the 1980s and 1990s with the rise in popularity of competitive swimming, and swimming for fitness.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the history of swimwear, Scarborough Museums Trust Collections Assistant Julie Baxter is giving a talk entitled Seaside Swimwear at Scarborough Art Gallery at 7.30pm on Friday June 12. Tickets are £5, and can be booked in advance on (01723) 374753.
You can also see examples of swimwear in the current exhibition at the gallery, Seaside Snaps, which comprises vintage photographs from the Scarborough Collections, and runs until June 21. The gallery is open from 10am-5pm Tuesdays to Sundays, plus bank holidays.