Swimming in the Past
Lorinda Cramer explores the history of Foy & Gibson’s woollen bathing suits
A group of warehouse conversions standing a few blocks from ACU’s Melbourne campus once formed a part of the extensive mills of Foy & Gibson. Their frontage, referred to one hundred years ago as the manufacturer’s ‘Two Miles of Mills’, dominated the Collingwood streetscape.1
I’ve been researching Foy & Gibson, the wool worked in these mills, and the clothing it made as the Redmond Barry Fellow for 2022. As part of the State Library of Victoria’s fellowships program, my explorations have ranged across the collections of the Library and the University of Melbourne – with both holding rich archival material related to the manufacturer and retailer.2 My interest is driven in part by Foy & Gibson’s catchy slogan, ‘From the sheep’s back to yours’.3
Clothing made by Foy & Gibson shaped the look and style of generations of Victorians. Many customers shopped in-store, including the Smith Street flagship store, but rural consumers turned to Foy & Gibson’s mail-order catalogues across the first decades of the twentieth century to help make their selections. Foy & Gibson produced richly illustrated catalogues twice a year for the spring-summer and autumn-winter seasons. Poring through the pages of these catalogues, I’ve been struck by the enormous range of goods made from Australian wool, including Foy & Gibson’s swimsuits.
Given our familiarity with elastic synthetic fibres now used for swimwear, we tend to assume that woollen swimsuits felt unpleasant or uncomfortable – that they sagged and stretched in unflattering ways. Consumers one hundred years ago, however, had very different reference points for understanding the material properties of swimwear. The catalogues offer valuable insights into how Foy & Gibson enticed consumers to purchase their bathing costumes by promoting fashionable new styles, but also in emphasising their increasingly firm and comfortable fit, and the access swimsuits opened to a particularly Australian lifestyle. Foy & Gibson produced bathing costumes as Australia’s beach culture developed, with the beach a site of healthy leisure for its fresh sea air, sun that bronzed the skin and seawater that moved dynamically around bathing bodies.
What people wore for a day at the water’s edge radically transformed across the first decades of the twentieth century as attitudes to exposed bodies relaxed. Before the First World War, Foy & Gibson’s swimsuits for women were loose, belted gowns that covered the body from neck to toe. Though the skirt finished at the knee, women’s legs were concealed first by bloomers that extended below the knee, and then by knitted hosiery.4 In the 1920s and 1930s, a range of styles that revealed arms, then legs, then shoulders, then even more of the body were introduced in quick succession. One women’s style advertised in the summer catalogue of 1921–22 had shoulder-revealing straps seen in Foy & Gibson’s swimsuits for the time.5 Men’s two-piece costumes could be purchased with short sleeves or shoulder straps, too. Sleeves were especially good for children, the summer catalogue for 1922 pointed out, to prevent sunburn in a nod to the heat of the Australian sun.6
Briefer styles were enhanced by new fits. Foy & Gibson’s ‘Gibsonia’-branded swimsuits included the men’s ‘Portsea’ swimsuit: ‘a close-fitting combination and loose-fitting knickers, secured by a patent belt’, the 1926–27 summer catalogue explained.7 The belt was an important component when moving through the surf to hold swimsuits in place, appearing in both men’s and women’s styles. Men could also purchase what were called Bathing V’s, which look strikingly similar to today’s swimming briefs – perhaps better known by the colloquial term ‘budgie smugglers’ – but that laced at the side.
By 1928, Foy & Gibson’s swimsuits were ‘used by leading life-saving clubs’. Any style or design could be made to order.8 The link to lifesavers in the catalogue perhaps gestures to the fact that the strong, bronzed lifesaver had become an Australian national icon in the interwar period. Timing was critical, occurring alongside and in the aftermath of the return of First World War servicemen, some physically maimed and others suffering shellshock. Australia’s lifesavers represented flawless heroes as Australians reeled and recovered from war.9
When Foy & Gibson began to describe the feel of its swimsuits at the end of the 1920s, a new elastic stitch helped produce costumes that hugged the body both in and out of the water. In 1930, Foy & Gibson launched its ‘Siren’ swimsuit for men and women, with a patent covering its key feature: this swimsuit had only one thickness of knitted wool over the hips for a more streamlined, less bulky fit. The Siren came in two cuts, ‘speed’ and ‘suntan’, suggesting a market had emerged for swimwear designed specifically for active use or leisure. In whichever cut, the catalogue assured potential purchasers that the Siren ‘fit the body closely without the slightest tightness or hampering effect’.10 Close-fitting swimsuits continued to improve. When Foy & Gibson’s advertised its all-wool ‘Swift’ men’s swimsuit in 1934, it was ‘shape-retaining’ and ‘specially resistant to the fading properties of salt water and sun’.11
In decades to follow, new synthetic fabrics would begin to be used that worked in very different ways in the water and on the body. But for those Australians who shopped at Foy & Gibson and embraced time at the beach, wool was the ideal choice. Foy & Gibson was taken over in 1955, though the well-known name continued to be used by its new owners, Cox Brothers. As a dress historian, the remarkable richness and depth of the Foy & Gibson archival material holds the potential to be mined for many more insights still as I seek to better understand the cycle of Australian wool from the sheep’s back to consumers.
1 Foy & Gibson, Two Miles of Mills (Melbourne: Foy & Gibson, c. 1922). State Library of Victoria, LTP 338.476773 F83T.
2 My research as Redmond Barry Fellow is jointly supported by the State Library of Victoria and the University of Melbourne.
3 Foy & Gibson, ‘Gibsonia’ Woollen and Hosiery Mills (Melbourne: Foy & Gibson, c. 1921), back cover. State Library of Victoria, LTP 338.476773 F83G.
4 Foy & Gibson, Spring and Summer Catalogue, no. 41, 1911–12, 15. University of Melbourne Archives, Foy & Gibson Collection.
5 See Kay Saunders, ‘“Specimens of Superb Manhood”: The Lifesaver as National Icon’, Journal of Australian
Studies 22, no. 56 (1998): 96–105.
6 Foy & Gibson, Summer Catalogue, no. 64, 1922, 76. University of Melbourne Archives, Foy & Gibson Collection.
7 Foy & Gibson, Summer Catalogue, no. 74, 1926–27, 74. University of Melbourne Archives, Foy & Gibson Collection.
8 Foy & Gibson, Spring and Summer Catalogue, no. 78, 1928, 81. University of Melbourne Archives, Foy & Gibson Collection.
9 See Kay Saunders, ‘“Specimens of Superb Manhood”: The Lifesaver as National Icon’, Journal of Australian Studies 22, no. 56 (1998): 96–105.
10 Foy & Gibson, Spring and Summer Catalogue, no. 82, 1930–31, 73. University of Melbourne Archives, Foy & Gibson Collection.
11 Foy & Gibson, Spring Catalogue, 1934, 28. State Library of Victoria, RARELTP; 658.8710994 F83M.
Captions for images:
1. Family at Beach with Parasols, Dromana, 1927. Museums Victoria, MM 110186, https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/items/1688838.
2. Foy & Gibson, ‘Gibsonia’ Woollen and Hosiery Mills (Melbourne: Foy & Gibson, c. 1921), back cover. State Library of Victoria , LTP 338.476773 F83G.
3. Foy & Gibson, Spring and Summer Catalogue, 1931-32, back cover. State Library of Victoria, YMS 13468.