Friday, April 6, 2012

Taking to the Water

Bathing is a sport
Enjoyed by great and small
In suits of any sort
Though better none at all.

[Anonymous, 19th-century poem]

Bathing "au natural" may be the ideal of the poet, but it certainly is not an option for an upcoming bathing party event being planned for August.

So I've started a bit of research on mid-19th century bathing and swimming.

Winslow Homer's "The Bathe at Newport", Harper's Weekly 1858

Doesn't it look like fun?

This is the type of scene we'd like to recreate, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, swimming had largely been the activity of men, while bathing—that is, dipping into the water, often in the name of healthful duty—was regarded as quite a different pastime, often a feminine one.

And as is so typical of the Victorian era in general, specialized activities require specialized clothing. Obviously, the clothing for bathing and swimming is unique in that its function is to protect the body while allowing movement in the water.

When wet, it becomes heavy and counterproductive to the purpose for which it is designed. Even worse, wet fabric often becomes translucent or even transparent. It clings to the surface underneath and reveals the form supporting it.

In an age of female modesty, these characteristics could and did present embarrassing problems for bathers.

The solution in the late 1850s was to cover the body in several layers of loosely fitting but sturdy clothing, modeled on the bloomer costume of the time.

Briefly, it consisted of a baggy, blouse-topped dress, “short” for its time, cut to the mid-calf and worn with a belt to gather in the fullness. With it, a pair of matching Turkish trousers was gathered at the ankle and finished with a ruffle. Often a short cape or “talma” was included to throw over the shoulders after emerging from the dip. The cape’s purpose was twofold: it would provide warmth if needed and, of equal importance,
a modest covering should the “figure” suddenly be revealed too prominently.

This outfit became the prototype for all women’s bathing suits for the next half century.

"A BATHING DRESS may at first sight appear to lie beyond the domain of fashion. Still there is no reason why this should not be pretty as well as appropriate. The one which we illustrate may be made of delaine flannel, or any similar material, edged with a darker shade of the same; or of bambazet, with a fringe of buckshot, covered with the material of the dress, with pellets of lead in the lower skirt. This latter material will be found quite available." Harper's New Monthly Magazine 1858

Fashion magazines had grave difficulties in finding complimentary things to say about such costumes. In 1854 Frank Leslie’s Ladies Gazette of Fashion started out encouragingly, but gave up in frustration, blurted out the truth, then turned finally to a straightforward description:

"[No. 7] is one of those bathing dresses so necessary to a seaside excursion or residence. If the invigorating sea-bath is to be enjoyed as it should be. The material is common Scotch plaid, green and red, in alternate checks. It is cut short in the bloomer fashion, which though sharks themselves on dry land. But a bathing dress is only intended for convenience, and the least idea of making it elegant would be preposterous.
The dress is made with a loose skirt set into an old-fashioned tight yoke and gathered around the waist with a plaid belt; it is cut short, leaving the feet and ankles free. Long bishop-sleeves fastened
around the wrist with a band protect the arm. The pantalettes are made loose and fastened around the ankles with narrow bands."

Peterson’s Magazine had to agree two years later that it was not a great looking outfit, though at least they thought that with a little embellishing it might possibly be improved:

Bathing-dresses, although generally very unbecoming can be made to look very prettily with a little taste. If the dress is of a plain color, such as grey, blue or brown, a trimming of the talma, collar, yoke, ruffles, etc. . . of crimson, green or scarlet, is a great addition.”

That these costumes were discussed in the various lady's magazines at all is in some measure an indication that women were beginning to need such a costume. And of course, the dress was just the beginning. To complete the outfit, the wearer needed an oil cap to protect her hair from the water, a straw hat and lisle gloves to protect her face and hands from the sun, and gum shoes to protect her feet from whatever lurked on the bottom.

This is just the first in an ongoing series of posts on mid-19th century bathing/swimming - there's lots more to come!

1 comment:

  1. I've gone bathing several times in my wool flannel bathing dress and it's very comfortable and not at all heavy. I just got a pair of red espadrilles to wear with it and I have the oil cloth to make a bathing cap. You may have inspired me to actually get around to making the cap!