By Mae Leonard
My mother took one look at the swimsuit and said – NO.
But Mam …
Her second – NO – was even more emphatic. I looked longingly at the red swimsuit in the Vogue window.
Vogue, in Roches Street, run by the three Miss McNamaras, must have been the very first boutique in Limerick before we even knew the meaning of the word. It was exclusive and expensive, but my mother knew that I needed a new swimsuit – my old one was threadbare and flapped around me creating massive drag as I trained with Shannon Swimming Club at Corbally in Limerick.
The previous day I had spoken to the blonde Miss McNamara at Vogue and she told me that the red swimsuit was a Catalina Model made from the very latest Lycra fabric designed for film stars, it clung to the figure, would look great on the beach and was particularly suitable for serious swimmers.
All I had in my moneybox was two pounds and ten shillings and the dark haired Miss MacNamara was sympathetic towards me and accepted that as a deposit. I tackled my Mam again. The answer was still NO.
“Fourteen pounds, nineteen shillings and eleven pence!” she said in high doh. “You’ll have to pay for it yourself.”
I sighed. Where would I get that kind of money?
But I wasn’t the first woman to battle for a proper swimsuit. It was back in 1875 that Agnes Beckwith proclaimed herself the ‘Greatest Lady Swimmer in The World’ but found that she was unable to show off her skills because of the very heavy clothing she was bound by the laws of decency to wear in the water.
As a teenager, she swam four miles from London Bridge to Greenwich and she managed this feat wearing a full-skirted dress, petticoats, pantaloons and stockings. It’s a wonder that she didn’t drown!
Then along came Amelia Bloomer. Sometime during the 1850s she promoted the Rational Dress Movement and introduced loose trousers worn under a shorter skirt specially for cycling.
Although they didn’t catch on until much later, they became known as ‘bloomers’ and were eventually adapted for swimming.
But the law had its eye on virtue and modesty and women in Europe and America could be arrested for revealing too many inches of leg. Wardens patrolled beaches to ensure that the law was adhered to.
In the meantime Agnes Beckwith was performing amazing displays of swimming in a whale tank at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster.
She set up a record by treading water for 30 hours. The place was packed night after night and she was patronised by the future Edward Vll.
But I can’t help wondering if it was her figure-hugging swimsuit, rather than her swimming prowess that was the main attraction.
Annette Kellerman was another powerful swimmer and in 1907 she was arrested at a public beach in Boston for indecent exposure for wearing a one-piece bathing suit that she made herself by sewing her woollen stockings onto a long-sleeved vest.
This was a woman who fought for fitness all through her childhood. Rickets had left her barely able to walk as a child and she wore leg braces until she was seven years old. Doctors recommended swimming to strengthen her legs and by the time she was 16 she held the Women’s World Record for the 100 meters.
She swam 40 kilometres down the Thames, she competed against twenty men down the Seine in Paris and came third, and she was the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel. She performed Water Ballet in a glass tank which inspired the Busby Berkeley films. In fact, a film based on her life was made in 1952 called Million Dollar Mermaid and starred Esther Williams.
But best of all she won the right for women to wear a proper one-piece swimming costume – just like my red one on the window of Vogue in Roches Street, Limerick.
I had almost given up all hope of owning it and was resigned to losing my deposit when my uncle Steff came to my rescue. His wife had a difficult birth and needed someone to help her with the new baby for a couple of weeks and I happened to be available.
Although my mother warned me that I should not to accept money, my uncle pushed enough pound notes into my pocket to pay for my swimsuit. And yes, it lived up to all my expectations.
It was a very good summer in my swimming career that summer at Corbally. ÷