We must go down to the sea again

I do hope everyone is planning something for the Historical Sew Fortnightly ‘By the Sea’ challenge!  There are so many gorgeous, fantastic nautically inspired garments to choose from.

According to the challenge guidelines, you can make anything that would have been worn by or on the sea (or river or lake), from ancient Roman ‘resort’ wear to Cleopatras frocks for barging down the Nile, to warm wool and furs to keep exploring Vikings warm, to all the more traditional nautical looks.

My favourite seaside looks tend to be a bit more modern and traditional and nautical.  Here are some that I love, and will get around to making…someday….

To start off, a Regency bathing costume may not be a very exciting garment in and of itself, but oh, what a fascinating scene it evokes!

'Sea Bathing' 1813 From "The costume of Yorkshire, illustrated by a series of forty engravings, being fac-similes of original drawings" NYPL

‘Sea Bathing’ 1813 From “The costume of Yorkshire, illustrated by a series of forty engravings, being fac-similes of original drawings” NYPL  Digital Collection

By the 1850s bathing costumes seemed to have developed into actual costumes: something a bit more defined than an all-enveloping shift.  This 1850s costume is pretty all-enveloping, but the buttons and bobbles and sleeve trims all lend it a certain nautical jauntiness.

Bathing dress. Sept. 1858. Harper's magazine, NYPL Digital Collection

Bathing dress. Sept. 1858. Harper’s magazine, NYPL Digital Collection

It may not be the ancient Romans that I mentioned before, but how fascinating and fetching is this Greek key adorned classically-inspired bathing ensemble?  Greek Keys were a very popular motif for bathing wear throughout the 19th century.

Bathing-dress ; Caps ; Shoes, etc. Aug.1870. From The Peterson magazine, NYPL Digital Collection

Bathing-dress ; Caps ; Shoes, etc. Aug.1870. From The Peterson magazine, NYPL Digital Collection

The reality, while still attractive in its own way, seems to have been less glamorous:

Bathing Ensemble, c. 1875, Wool, FIDM

Bathing Ensemble, c. 1875, Wool, FIDM

If you couldn’t be glamourous in the sea, at least you could be perfectly put together by the sea.  I love the crisp stripes on this bustle era seaside frock, especially with the darling matched parasol:

Fashions for the seaside, ca 1884

Fashions for the seaside, ca 1884

And as the perfect matching pair to it, a photograph of the ever-chic and stylish Princess Alexandra in a very similar ensemble:

Princess Alexandra in a sailor suit, 1880s

Princess Alexandra in a sailor suit, 1880s

As a reminder that not all nautical fashions need be blue and white, I love this 1903 take in red, pink and white.  I’ve actually seen a lot of examples of sailors suits and nautical fashions from the 1860s to the 1960s in shades of pink.  Such a lovely twist on the trope:

Summer frocks, 1903 Delineator

Summer frocks, 1903 Delineator

A slightly more unusual colour combination is green and white:

Woman on the beach, Maude Stumm, 1904 NYPL Digital Collection

Woman on the beach, Maude Stumm, 1904 NYPL Digital Collection

And one in red and white:

Bathing costume, ca. 1910

Bathing costume, ca. 1910

The 1930s were really when the beach and nautical fashions came into their own, starting with beach pyjamas in the late 1920s:

Beach pyjamas, ca 1930

Beach pyjamas, ca 1930

And moving on to proper (albeit still woollen) knitted swimwear:

Swimwear 1934, via Wearing History

Swimwear 1934, via Wearing History

And encompassing every possible variant on the sailor suit, including, out of my own stash, the darling Butterick 5654:

Butterick 5654, 1930s nautical inspired pattern

Butterick 5654, 1930s nautical inspired pattern

To finish it off, something fabulously bright: fish patterned coveralls by Jantzen.  Now that’s how to do a one piece!

Beachette, Jantzen  (American, founded 1910), 1938, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Beachette, Jantzen (American, founded 1910), 1938, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art

What do you think?  Do you long for olden days on the golden sands, or are you glad for the bitty bits of spandex we cover ourselves with these days?


  1. Oh, what lovely examples of nautical wear! And I think I made my daughter a version of the 1884 Seaside fashion many years ago (have to see if I can find a pic). When does this need to be in? I just might be able to squeeze something in : )

    • You have over three weeks. It’s due the 22nd of April, but anything submitted in the week after. I would LOVE to have you participate!

      • I’m in! I found the pics of Brittany from years ago. I also have pics of my dad in a wool bathing suit when he was little, bagginess and all. Yes, they really did wear them in the water AND when they went to the beach they rented them! I can get more details from my grandmother when I see her for dinner this week, this is HER era : ) I’ll also see if she’s got pics of her mom, my great grandmother, in beach attire. I’m loving that greek number and that red one…swoon…

  2. Kathy P in Pittsburgh says

    I don’t think I’d want to be messing with all that wool in the water. I’ve tried to swim in jeans and a t-shirt- it wasn’t easy. Done in a nicely lined spandex, I’d wear most of the suit styles in the advert from the 30s, though. I’ll leave the teensy bits to the swimsuit models.
    Princess Alexandra’s suit is lovely.

    • They are lovely styles aren’t they? I do want to try to make a woolen knit swimsuit, just to see if all the talk about how saggy and uncomfortable they are is true. I’ve read too much rubbish about historical costuming to just believe anything because I’ve read it!

  3. I don’ think I much care for the heavy woollen swimsuits of the past eras when actual swimming is involved, but many of those look really lovely if you just want to lounge about on the beach. Absolute fav – the Greek-style bathing-dress from 1870!

    • Isn’t it FABULOUS! I’m barely restraining myself from tearing through my whites to see if I have a suitable woollen for making it up in! In white it would be quite revealing when wet though, which is why most vintage swimsuits are dark. But it would loose so much of its charm in anything but white. Sigh. Decisions!

      • fidelio says

        I wonder if it was lined, which would help with the transparency issues…

  4. I’d happily wear the Jantzen Beachette, no to the others, including the very attractive but got to be uncomfortable 1934 wool suits. They sagged when wet and often developed embarrassing holes!

    • I love that Beachette. It’s like a much more elegant version of the playsuits that were popular this summer.

      I still want to test the claims of sagging and holes though!

  5. Lynne says

    So many things to choose from! I think Princess Alexandra beats the Greek key patterned outfit, but only just. This is going to be a great challenge to watch.

    • I go back and forth between those two as favourites, and the Beachette, though it looses and gains something for being wearable. Alexandra may loose out only because she looks so amazing in it, and I wouldn’t look quite as neat!

  6. I’ve decided to make some trousers from one of your 1930’s pins. Wide leg with a cuff and stripes down the sides or on the pockets, haven’t decided which yet; the fabric is still drying.
    I had originally thought of piking out as I want this to be wearable and most of what I saw wasn’t something that I’d ever use. Trousers I can and will use though!

    • Oh, I’m pleased you are participating! I’ll agree that this challenge has less scope for small items and practical items, but I still hope people will get inspired and find something to make.

  7. I really enjoyed going through these seaside looks. I love the 1884 stripey number and the 1920s beach pyjamas . But the knitted swimwear does it for me, what an amazing array of costumes.

  8. Elise says

    wholesomewear.comIt’s so interesting, because there is a sect of Americans who are insisting that their women remain covered up because revealing flesh will cause the menfolk to loose control and sexually assault them or something–but it won’t be the man’s fault because she should have known better. The result is a very sad sort of sack aesthetically along with a depressive sigh from those who believe in female equality.

    Obviously, I don’t like the mentality one bit, although both the itsy and the bitsy make me feel funny. Oh to have a 30s swimsuit! Or, not having that, a suit that shows off character while showing off the parts of you that you like best: a nipped waist, toned arms, your pedicure. The ones you post are FUN. All all showing a clear desire to have fun and to be oneself.

    Anything but this: http://www.wholesomewear.com/page-4.html

      • Elise says

        At least ‘burquini’ has a fun punny name and can retain some of the sense of fun that all swimsuits should have!

        • Elise says

          And sorry for my sad post…oh the brain…

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