Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Inside the Australian Dress Register: Max Humphress' "V's" Swimming Costume, 1911

Max Humfress V's swimming costume, c. 1911. Manly Museum and Art Gallery, Sydney

This very rare example of a young boy's homemade V's dates to around 1911. They were made for 3 year old Max Humfress who is pictured wearing them, adding tremendous interest and value to this garment. They are the only child's 'V's' and one of the earliest 'V's'- in the Manly Museum and Art Gallery collection in Sydney Australia.


The V's are machine stitched, probably by a home dressmaker. They consist of front and back panels, joined at the left side and the crotch. The right side fastens with a cotton drawstring, secured through a channel around the waist. The seam for the drawstring has been simply turned over twice and machine sewn with a straight stitch. At the centre front the initials 'MH' have been stitched on by machine with cotton tape, slightly wider than that used on the drawstring. The simplicity of design and lack of elasticized waist indicate this was almost certainly not created by a professional seamstress but most likely a family member, possibly Max's mother.

Max practicing his diving whilst wearing his V's

This is one of the oldest known examples of 'Vs' - the predecessor of the modern day Speedo. Popular from the beginning of the 20th century until the end of the 1930s, these cotton V-shaped costumes for men covered the lower part of the body and were usually worn by themselves or over a one piece costume for added modesty, the latter was made a by-law in some Sydney councils in 1906. 'Vs' were particularly popular in swimming baths such as Manly Cove in Sydney and often provoked outrage from moralists over the exhibitionist tendencies of those men who wore them without a traditional one piece (which covered from neck to knee) underneath.

One such opponent was the Mayor of Waverly who in 1907 wrote that "the most objectionable aspect of surf bathing was the pleasure that bathers derived from promenading their exposed bodies." The mayor went on to refer specifically to 'Vs' which seemed only to "accentuate rather than conceal the male anatomy as after contact with the water... show up the figure in a very much worse manner than if they were nude." Another commentator, this time a mother, wrote in a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald in February 1907 that she was forced to leave Balmoral beach with her daughters due to the "sprawling men and lads, naked, but for a nondescript rag around their middle."

This new type of swimwear not only shocked but also challenged ideas of what was and what was not acceptable swimwear, as well as how the body should be displayed, or in this case concealed, on Australian beaches.

For more detailed information about the manufacture of this garment and to explore others like it please visit the Australian Dress Register by clicking on the logo below.


*The Australian Dress Register is a collaborative, online project about dress with Australian provenance pre-1975. This includes men's, women's and children's clothing ranging from the special occasion to the everyday. Museums and private collectors are encouraged to research their garments and share the stories and photographs while the information is still available and within living memory. The project is facilitated by the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia. All contents are copyright of the Powerhouse Museum and Contributors. 

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