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Bathing Fashion Reflects Society's Rules

History, as a study, is multi-faceted; interconnecting societal structure with economics, fashions, food, etiquette, architecture, art, medicine, politics -- basically a tying together of life and all it entailed. While studying the past we shake our heads in marvel or disgust, simply not comprehending the “why” of something. We tend to forget that we’re looking at things far differently that those living in that time would have done. Learning about past societies will often provide a path to how we arrived to where we are today. Rather than judge the right or wrongness, we need to learn lessons from the past to improve the future.

Fashion history mirrors, almost equally, societal structure and politics. What behaviors are permissible and what is taboo?. What laws, whether enacted or socially imposed, governed the land? It is ironic that one of the most prolific eras of invention and discovery, of scientific and industrial advancement, the Victorian Era, was also one of the most restrictive....mostly for women and children.

One garment that serves as a great measure of Victorian standards is the lady’s bathing costume. Bathing costumes are depicted in scenes of Roman baths (no, there were no bikinis) and eventually are referenced in writings such as Celia Fiennes. Fiennes was an English travel writer who “journeyed on horseback all over England at the end of the 17th century, and whose journals are an invaluable source for social and economic historians.”[1] In 1687, she wrote about the “garments made of fine yellow canvas,” would be worn by ladies; some even had weights sewn into the hem so their gown would not float up, putting their legs on display. Modesty was a key factor in women’s clothing, especially bathing costumes.

“Ladies”, women of socially privileged families and not of the working class, were permitted to take part in water-based activities, provided they were properly covered, didn’t get tanned or freckled, and avoided strenuous play in the water; that would be unladylike. Sea Bathing had long been praised as “the cure” for everything from general malaise to broken bones and deadly diseases. There were even a few people who thought it was simply fun.

As we owed most of our earlier traditions and societal structures to Great Britain, it is appropriate to share a little history. In England, it was "considered inappropriate for the upper and middle classes to swim in the waves together, thus bathing machines became popular. Modesty and decorum dictated that the opposite sex should bathe in isolation from each other, for nude bathing for both sexes was common until the Victorian age. “It is believed that naked bathing continued until 1862, when a law was passed stating that male and female bathers were to be segregated by not less than 60 feet, and that all owners of bathing machines would provide gowns or dresses to female bathers and drawers or similar to male bathers.” After swimming, bathers would re-enter the bathing machine, dry off, and change back to their street clothing. The bathing machine would be wheeled back to the beach and the bather would emerge fully dressed."[2]

A bathing machine that looked something like a small storage house on wheels pulled by a horse, would transport the lady bather to and from the water. Usually accompanied by a personal maid, the bather would change her clothing in the machine and get in and out of the water in relative privacy. For those of the growing middle class, there were bathing machines with female attendants to aid with clothing changes.

I've yet to find the name of the original inventor of the bathing machine, but in Margate, English Quaker Benjamin Beale did invent the privacy awning that extended outward on the water-facing section so the bather could have complete privacy getting out into the water and then back into the machine. (Photo from "Jane Austen's World" website as credit below.) The privacy (modesty) awning experienced several changes in appearance throughout the 19th century, however, it's function remained the same.

Women’s bathing costumes reflected society’s notion of remaining proper. Other than ball or opera gowns, lady’s garments were layered and concealing, worn over corsets and undergarments. I have not yet read anything indicating corsets were worn while bathing in the sea. Bathing garments consisted of a bathing dress, drawers and stockings. Fortunately, the stockings would be removed before entering the water. The dress and drawers were usually made of wool or cotton. “These fabrics would become heavy when wet and were hardly suitable for any vigorous activities.”[2] One can imagine the struggles a woman faced to remain upright in the waves once the garments were saturated with sea water. Imagine trying to climb up the short stairs back into the bathing machine with the heavy, dripping dress and drawers and then the effort to get out of them. Any refreshment one felt from the water would quickly dissipate and leave the lady quite tired I would think. When you think about the design of the garment with the long sleeves, skirt and trousers, it was very restrictive, almost ensuring the wearer would behave demurely - in a ladylike fashion. In this light, the connection between societies dictates and fashion are more easily observed.

I could not locate an 1820s-50s American bathing scene, however, I did find an English version showing two attendants:

(Photograph from "Jane Austen's World" as credited below)

Until the later Victorian Era, sea/ocean bathing was largely available only to those who lived on or were wealthy enough to travel or own property on coastal locations. With the expansion of railways in post-Civil War American, new lines offered affordable travel to the sea. Towns blossomed along the coasts of the country, as it did in England, France, and Australia, to accommodate growing crowds. "The working class continued to believe in the health benefits of sea bathing, particularly in August and September. Although Pleasure Piers were offering exciting new entertainments in coastal cities around the world, the good old-fashioned lure of sea bathing remained high."[4]

The bathing costume pictured was donated to the museum last June, in honor of the Holladay family, by Cary Holladay of Red Rock Farm. The navy blue wool garment, circa 1870-1880, is trimmed with white ribbon and features brass buttons on the bodice and cuffs. There are two pieces - dress with long sleeves and bloomer-like trousers. It does not appear that corsets were worn, but the nipped waist with belting reflected the acceptable fashion silhouette of that time. Clothing can, in a sense, serve as a mirror; reflecting what is happening around us and cultures at large.

To better envision the pre-American Civil War bathing experience, I was able to find a photograph of the long sleeve bathing costume, featuring a woman with two children. As you can see, the woman and one child are holding onto ropes. The sleeves shorten by the 1860's and by the 1880's, the costume has changed dramatically as had ocean/sea bathing rules. There are countless photographs of the late Victorian Era bathing machines, people, and locations. However, our bathing costume pre-dates them and I did not include them in this post.


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