Dear PoPville – Why can’t we wear cotton clothes at the pool?

Photo by PoPville flickr user fromcaliw/love

Dear PoPville,

This weekend we went to the Harry Thomas rec center to swim. My boyfriend was hanging out on a lounge chair and wearing a cotton t-shirt. A lifeguard approached us and told him he must remove his t-shirt. We asked the lifeguard why, and he said it was “just the rules”. I understand if you can’t wear clothes in the pool, but we were hanging out on the pool deck. Does anyone know why you can’t wear cotton clothes at the pool?

When we left, we noticed signs in the locker rooms about cotton clothes being banned from the pool area. So bizarre.

Very strange – I don’t see it in the DPR’s list of rules. Maybe it’s not considered “proper swim attire”?

Though I am glad to see: “No gum, spitting, spouting, nose blowing or urinating in pool” is an official rule…

52 Comment

  • I imagine it is indeed a “proper swim attire” issue, which is related to keeping the pool clean. I read once that the reason dudes in France wear speedos is because that’s the only thing allowed in pools. “Street” clothes, like t-shirts dirty up the pool real quick.

    • thebear

      It’s a darn good thing for humanity that I’m not going swimming in France. Me in a Speedo would *not* be pretty.

    • I wish we had a speedo rule here, ever since my friend told me he bikes across town commando in his shorts which then pass as swim trunks once he gets to the pool. I nearly gagged. Yep, no swim trunks or shorts in French pools, because they could pass as street clothes, and guys would just do that. Now who’s got poor hygiene?

    • A friend of mine told me she was once in France and she and a guy friend wanted to go swimming at a public pool. They told the guy he had to wear a Speedo, and if he didn’t have one he could rent one. He ended up not going swimming.

      • You don’t need to rent it, you can buy one!

        “For men “bermudas” are not allowed, and “forgetting” is not an option because each pool has a vending machine as you enter the building packed with itty bitty speedos, women’s suits, goggles, and bonnet (swim caps) – all for 10 Euros or less! ”

        Awwwwww, I learned to swim in the pool in the link’s picture, Piscine Pontoise, in Paris.

  • I’ve had this happen to me on numerous occasions at DC public pools. This, while the lady next to me sipped Bartles & James from glass bottles and smoked her cigarettes and nothing was said to her. YUP.

  • We all know cotton clothing is gang attire.

    • At the upshur pool the Attendants recently were too scared to ask a sizable crew of misbehaving thugs all showing their nice fancy underwear underneath their pulled down black jeans and wife beater shirts to leave. Finally, finally, the manager had the nerve to ask them to leave, or put on proper swim attire. Thankfully they left, I was tiring of seeing the kid pretending that his package was the size of a small watermelon as he did something unspeakable to his imaginary shorty.

  • I’ve been swimming at public pools in D.C. over 25 years. As long as I can remember “no t-shirts” has been a rule. As a teenager I asked why, the lifeguard told me so people can’t conceal stuff. This was in the 90’s.

    • Conceal stuff like a fat stomach?

      • 25 years ago in DC, a shootout at the pool was not a wholly unlikely possibility.

        I dunno about now.

        I was at the pool this past weekend. No street clothes rule was in full effect. It was hot as Hades though, so I was more than happy to only wear swim trunks.

  • This specific pool is pretty silly. I went about 40 times last summer, and the life guards were just playing grab ass or cards/board games with each other the whole time, not doing much else, extremely overstaffed.

    Went there this year once, and they were just dicks. Was the same story as OP – I put on my t-shirt as I was leaving the deck and a male lifeguard approached me. He talked to me like he thought I was new to the neighborhood, and I needed to learn how things were done at Harry Thomas Pool. Very insulting, especially since I know how things are done at that pool. I believe he started the conversation off as “If you come back..”

    It would be interesting to hear if they still take a break from 4-5 before closing at 6. That was always pretty stupid too.

  • This same thing happened to us last weekend! We were told it was due to the “no street clothes” rule, despite the fact that my friend was wearing a SWIM SUIT COVER UP, sitting under an umbrella, minding her own business.

    Meanwhile, 8-year-olds were dropping f-bombs and running around the pool deck, a group of teenagers was nearly drowning a small child with their splashes, and a woman next to us was blasting highly offensive rap music for all to hear.

    Right, because a SWIM SUIT COVER UP is the real problem in this situation.

  • This is why I always wear Lycra spandex everywhere I go.

  • I can understand no t-shirts IN the pool, but OUT of the pool seems kind of silly, and perhaps a bit discriminatory. I mean, what if you’re a mom or dad who’s taking their kids to the pool, has no intention of swimming, and has issues with their body? (Or did I misinterpret this?)

    • or what if you just got there or are about to leave? do you have to wait until you’re back on the streets to put on your street clothes?

      what if I’m wearing my cotton towel wrapped around me like a dress?

    • If you have issues with your body that preclude you from wearing only a swimsuit, wearing only a swimsuit is the least of your problems.

      I imagine the rule started when pervs started showing up and hanging out poolside just to ogle the girls in swimsuits. I blame R. Kelly.

      • “That’s the least of your problems” doesn’t solve anything for a parent with body issues whose children want to swim. Maybe they’re working on it, maybe not, but blathering about how that’s the “least of their problems” is just useless.

  • this issue’s been raised many times on the Eckington listserv. Here’s the most recent response from a DC employee:

    Subject:* RE: [Eckington] What’s the reason behind the “no shirt” rule at the Harry Thomas Rec center pool?


    My staff should not prohibit anyone from wearing a t-shirt, whether cotton or some other material when not in the swimming pool. I share your frustration as it has been clearly communicated at our internal staff meetings. If a patron is sitting poolside in pool appropriate attire, with a cover-up on that is permissible. I will- again- reinforce that with the pool staff.

    If it continues, please contact me directly.


    Sean Link
    Aquatic Program Manager

    DC Department of Parks and Recreation
    1480 Girard St. NW | Washington, DC 20009
    P: 202.538.1503

  • There was a lengthy discussion on the eckington list serv about this. I believe the resolution was that you were allowed to have it on the deck, but not in the water. I would check the list serv archives and then contact the person who at DPR listed in those emails who is supposed to be overseeing the rec centers.

  • Also, if you’re as pale as I am, you might need to cover up while you’re not in the water so you look slightly less lobster-like by the end of the day.

  • Seems like enforcement of the rules is akin to reverse racism.

      • Yes. In other words, pale Irishmen like myself burn like there is no tomorrow. I’d rather not and try to limit the potential for skin cancer. So sorry, I would like to wear a t-shirt.

    • A.) There is no “reverse” racism. Racism is racism. The reverse modifier does nothing but make you look dumb.
      B.) There’s no indication that its racist at all. In fact, I believe some of the complainants in Eckington were black and some where white. So unless the lifeguards are asian, hispanic/latino, pacific islander, native american, inuit, it would appear that this particularly idiotic rule is race neutral.

    • Reverse Discrimination??? Really???

  • I always thought this was a part of the swim attire rule and was in place to deter seedy elements (people who are not at the pool to swim but rather to hang out all day).

    I was told to take my T-shirt off the first time I went to a DC public pool. I was overweight at the time but complied.

    I’ve only been to Banneker and it’s really nice. I think this rule is part of why it is really nice and therefore I don’t mind it. A little fascism can go a long way sometimes.

  • All of these posts about going to the public pool reminds me of the Always Sunny episode where the gang goes to one. 🙂

  • The reason cotton t-shirts are not allowed is obvious to anyone with even half a brain:


    Or so all my friends who wear the latest techno-fabric tell me…

  • I was at the Francis Pool a few weeks ago and there was a group of kids who showed up and generally started horsing around. I noticed that one of the girls, who was probably about 13, was swimming in her bra and underwear. This was not one of those bathing suits with underwire that look like lingerie, this was unmistakably an actual bra and underwear. Also, the bra was way too small and I was worried about a wardrobe malfunction with each cannonball she did. I kept waiting for the lifeguards to say something to her, as this was clearly not proper swim attire, but no one did anything. I, too, recently had a friend reprimanded by a lifeguard there for wearing a t-shirt, so I was surprised they let this go.

  • what about rash-guard type shirts? those don’t clog the filter as cotton does, but I wonder what their rules are for those too?

    (this, BTW, is why i pay for a private membership-only pool)

  • This same lifeguard moonlights at Chinatown coffee, and he told me I couldn’t wear a cotton shirt while ordering an espresso over ice.

  • What about an Under Armour shirt? Linen shirt? Silk shirt? Cashmere sweater?

    Seems like common sense could rule the day and allow someone who is not swimming to wear a shirt.

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