Annie Stannard

Annie Stannard is a design historian whose research interests include twentieth-century fashion, women’s histories, youth culture, and gender histories with particular reference to consumption, visual culture and the media. Her work frequently examines constructs of gender, changing notions of femininity and systems of power.

Research Project

Capped and Strapped: Women’s Swimming in Britain 1920 -1970 

My research explores theories of gender and power to examine how swim caps became a vehicle for patriarchal notions.

Material Culture, Modern, Europe, Textiles, Media, Untold / Marginalised Narratives, Gender Studies

Julia Buruleva, BeacH Is A New TheatrE #6, 2021, © Julia Buruleva

The title of this thesis refers to the design and use of women’s swim caps and the role they played in changing notions of femininity and the emancipation/constraint of the female swimmer.

While the swimsuit and swim cap share many of the same issues reflected in the history of women’s swimwear generally, my research shows that the swim cap had its own unique history linked to developments in women’s hair and beauty cultures, about which this thesis offers interesting new perspectives.

Bringing to light how women’s opportunities to swim were countered by patriarchal power and regulation, it is difficult to believe that previously women who had swum in ‘fresh’ water were deemed to be breaking the law.  Subsequently, in the 1920s/30s rules imposed by many local pool committees restricted the times and days when women could swim and imposed on female swimmers the wearing of caps, this leading to the swim cap becoming a gender-dividing garment that I argue constrained women throughout the period.

Through media representations of an idealised female swimmer and the design/branding/ marketing of ‘feminine’ swim caps, women were socially conditioned/coerced into disciplinary hair/beauty regimes and normative behaviours, that saw them not only comply with swim cap rulings, but also believe that these were necessary for public health and decency.

As the swim cap evolved from a functional item to a fashionable accessory, so it became a signifier of difference once again, this time as the means to feminise the wearer. Reflected in the design changes that took place over these years, caps became more decorative and less practical/functional - this shaping the female swimmer into watery ornament and achieving to reaffirm established social order.

Jamie Hodgson, Swim Cap 1, 1965. © London College of Fashion/The Woolmark Company

Keystone Pictures, Bali Hai Swim Cap by Kleinert’s, 1965. © London College of Fashion/The Woolmark Company

Jamie Hodgson, Swim Cap, 1965. © London College of Fashion/The Woolmark Company

Despite female swimmers having protested against wearing caps it was only when men were being required to wear them in the 1960s, that their refusal to comply enabled women to do the same. Similarly, it was only with the uptake of swim caps by professional male swimmers in the late 1960s/70s, and a growing social/cultural interest in competitive swimming, that the swim cap came to be seen in a new light. As manufacturers quickly adapted the design/marketing of their caps to capitalise on a new commercial market, swim caps lost their association as fashionable/feminine accessories, elevated instead to become truly functional/competitive tools. As a result of this change, the swim cap no longer held power to constrain female swimmers.

It is interesting to note that at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Alice Dearing, the first black woman to represent Great Britain in swimming, was banned by governing officials from wearing a swim cap designed for natural black hair (the Soul Cap). Dearing claims that current caps are unsuitable for those from ethnic minority backgrounds and that they create barriers to swimming. This highlights how issues around swim caps, the use of them and the potential they have to marginalise and create hierarchies, still continues today in similar and different ways.

The Natator

©2022 by V&A/RCA History of Design MA