A 1930 news report about ladies being tricked by a dissolving swimsuit was untrue, yet it went on to have a lengthy career. American journalist Webb Miller (1891–1940) is most remembered for his coverage of the Second World War. In 1922 and 1927, he received Pulitzer Prize nominations. He did, however, make a modest contribution to the study of hoaxes since he described a hoax that the media believed in his 1936 autobiography, I Found No Peace; a hoax that may have otherwise vanished into oblivion without ever being shown as fake. The shocking trick bathing suit that was allegedly engaged in the Dissolving Bathing Suit Hoax melted away when it came into touch with water. I first learned about Miller’s tale about 20 years ago, when I read a summary of it in Curtis MacDougall’s 1940 book Hoaxes.
I periodically looked through newspaper archives over the years out of interest to see the correspondent’s story on the dissolving suit as it appeared in American newspapers. But I never did, and I ultimately started to wonder whether Miller’s story was a fake, one of those tall stories that go about in the news business.
However, I just recently decided to look for it again and discovered the precise set of terms that brought it up. It turns out that the article was published in December 1930, while Miller was the head of the European Bureau. He so apparently jumbled up his times in his recollection. But other from that, the news broadcast was much how he had described it, even though no British billionaire was mentioned.
Did the reporter (“Grierson”) who bought into the scam actually bring his employer a tin box filled with powdered breakfast? It’s possible that section was embellished.
Another question is whether the reporter reported an urban legend as news or fell for a purposeful fake. It’s tough to say for sure, but I think the latter since the tale lacks a clear creator (a characteristic of an urban legend) and because it seems like the kind of urban legend that would have been popular in the 1920s and 1930s. First, it perpetuated prejudices about the opulent lifestyle of wealthy Europeans, some of which were undoubtedly warranted.
Second, considering that fabric technology had advanced much at the time and the concept of a water-soluble cloth was conceivable (cellophane had been patented in 1912; nylon was first produced in 1935). And lastly, since the tale sparked a common urban legend repeating theme—fear of the “naked body publicly exposed”—in the listener. Other, more well-known examples of the “naked in public” theme include the man who is caught in his hotel room while unclothed and the “nude surprise party,” in which an executive is invited to his secretary’s apartment and assumes it is for a sexual encounter; as a result, he strips off when she excuses herself only to find out that she has planned a surprise birthday party for him.
Dissolving Bathing Suits Later
My knowledge of the tale of the dissolving bathing suit dates back to a 1930 United Press article, but it wouldn’t be the last. The disappearing bathing suits frequently reappeared in the decades that followed under various guises. Wire services published a report on one in 1935 “When wet, the filler between the mesh of the suits dissolves, leaving a net suit, according to Miss Cassie Moses, the inventor of a dissolving bathing suit. Miss Moses hasn’t specified the reason she came up with the costume.” According to reports, this dissolving suit was shown at the Chicago-based National Inventors Congress. Although it sounds remarkably similar to the 1930 account, it may have really been true.