Are you thinking ahead to the ‘By the Sea’ challenge for the Historical Sew Fortnightly? I certainly am!
I’d love to make a full, ridiculous, Edwardian or Victorian bathing costume, or a Regency chemise for sea bathing at Bath or Brighton, but I feel I ought to make something late ’20s or early ’30s, because it’s been on my to-do list for over a year (for two Art Deco Weekends), and (more importantly) I already have the fabric. So I should probably be good, and do that, and save the super silliness for later.
But, oh, the temptation!
My desire for silly turn-of-the-century bathers is further fueled by this delight from the collection of 1906 Girls Own Papers I just bought. Look at these bathing belles:
Aren’t those bathing frocks fabulous? I’m particularly taken with the model who is bending over to adjust her hem. I love the petal sleeves, and the simpler, shaped rather than gathered, skirt. The spotty kerchief is pretty cute too. And the images are fantastically detailed. The lone maiden with her rope to cling on to, so that she can venture out into a rough sea more safely (growing up in Hawaii I was fascinated to read of people swimming with ropes – it’s such a foreign concept in the sheltered tropical waters I was used to). The bathing carriages that persisted into the 20th century for the more modest bathers in the background of the larger image. And the damsel in the light-coloured suit with her net. What was she hoping to catch?
I’ve been reading Sarah Kennedy’s Vintage Swimwear: A History of Twentieth-Century Fashions, and it’s driving me absolutely barmy. She identifies every single one of her early 20th century bathing images as showing ‘extreme’ or ‘immodest’ fashion, due to the leg exposure, or the arm exposure, or the lack of stockings. If so, why only show these images? How can it be a history if it only presents an extreme side of the story? Some of the images show costumes every bit as covered up as the ones in the fashion sketch above, and since the Girl’s Own Paper was a very conservative, religious, moral publication, one can assume that the bathing costumes they suggest would be quite proper. In addition, informal early 20th century beach photography (not the posed glamour shots she presents) show that most people actually wore far less to the beach than the glamour images. Out of the city centers, and away from beaches with morality laws, men and women bathed together with bare feet, and in very simple garments. Yes, there were beaches with morality laws, but the very fact that they were written about makes them the exception, not the rule.
And she goes on and on about the drowning deaths that were caused by the heavy bathing costumes, without being able to identify a single case. Yes, early 20th century swimsuit reform campaigners cited them as a reason to ditch the heavy wool gowns, but early corset reformers cited all the deaths from corsets, and we haven’t been able to identify a single confirmed case of death-by-corsetry (on the other hand, there are at least two cases in New Zealand alone where corsets saved women’s lives when they were shot at or stabbed).
Then she talks about the practice of bathing in chemises in Regency England being so enticing that it lead women to dampen their evening gowns to imitate the effect, and we know that dampened evening gowns was something that was done in only a few instances, by only the most fast and fashion forward of women. To repeat it is as accurate as to suggest that all women in the 2000s wore nipple-revealing bustier cups which were ripped off on a regular basis, a la Janet Jackson, or that every woman with powdered hair in the 18th century had rats and mice living in her coiffure, just since one incident was reported, once.
I hate poor research when just a little critical thinking would present a much more accurate picture.
Right. Rant over.
Let’s look at the pretty picture again, shall we?
Ah, happiness returns.
Update: And yet more happiness! Look at this amazing image that a friend shared with me after reading this post (and is graciously allowing me to share with you). She took it in Llanbadarn church yard in Wales. Best memorial stone ever!