Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Perils of Online Research or Why It's Important to Evaluate Your Sources

My most recent post, "Taking to the Water - Part 6", created a bit of controversy, particularly my assertion that short sleeves were not appropriate for 1860's bathing costumes.

Rather than continuing the back and forth comments, I thought I would discuss my research methods and why I have reached my conclusions.

Here's an image that was presented to me as evidence in favor or short sleeves, note the lady on the far right:

And here's another version of that image:

I found both  images while doing my research; while similar, there are differences - the background, the position of the ladies, the length of the jacket in the "pant suit", the length of the skirts, the sleeves on one lady and most significantly, the documentation of when and where the images were originally published.

Image #1 is said to date to 1863, on the Graceful Lady website, with the name of the publication unknown.It does not appear in either the 1863 Godey's or Peterson's magazines, as I have bound copies in my personal collection that I double checked .

The only place I find Image #1 published, is on the cover of the Harriet's "Three Piece Bather" pattern, stated to be circa 1862 - hardly a quality reference source .

However, I know exactly when and where image #2 was published: Godey's July 1864 and descriptions of each outfit are included - it's sitting on the desk next to me, so easy to verify.

Therefore, Image #2 is currently a much stronger primary reference, it can be placed in an exact time and place. Until the same can be said of Image #1, I will not use it as a basis for any conclusions. However, if I ever can document the image, I will reevaluate my conclusions.

Here's another image, presented as evidence:

The source is a Flicker account, with the only description "Bathing Dresses 1864".

A bit of searching revealed that the plate is in the collection of the Claremont Colleges Digital Library, part of
the Myrtle Tyrrell Kirby Fashion Plate Collection comprises 650 images of nineteenth-century fashion plates from the Macpherson Collection of the Ella Strong Denison Library at Scripps College. The collection was donated to the Denison Library in 1948.

The full-color fashion plates in the Kirby collection were culled from a variety of women's periodicals and
other mass-circulating works published between 1789 and 1914. The images are primarily from France, Britain, America, and Spain.

The provided description of this plate gives two differing dates - 1867 and based on a handwritten comment, 1864. No source of publication is given, as it's just a single page, however it seems safe to assume either Britain or the US based on the use of English.

The person who pointed out this plate also found it in "Fashions and Costumes from Godey's Lady's Book" edited by Stella Blum,with a date of July 1865.

Back to my bookshelf...and it's not in the July 1865 Godey's.

So once again, we have a fashion plate with no firm date and no source. It's a real shame, as it's a charming plate.

Having looked at many plates over the past weeks, I feel the plate may date to the early 1870's - the narrowing and shortening of the trousers certainly point in that direction.

This is another bit of evidence that requires more research before it can be definitively used.

Here's another example presented to refute my conclusion regarding short sleeves, a bathing suit once listed on the Karen Augusta site:

It's provenance is given as "Late 1860's bathing costume, was purchased from Doris Langley Moore (legendary British fashion historian) by an important American collector. She collected American and European clothing during the decades of the 1940s through 1980s".

That note of European clothing is important, as I do not believe this suit is of American origin. In Claudia Kidwell's,  Women's Bathing and Swimming Costume in the United States , she states the following:

"American women seem to have accepted the majority of styles shown in European fashion plates, except for the skirtless bathing suits. The writer of an 1868 column on New York fashions sought to convince his readers to try the more daring European style although he grudgingly admitted that the “Bathing suits made with trousers and blouse waist without skirt are objected to by many ladies as masculine and fast....” This style was in fact, very similar to the costume worn by men when they bathed with the ladies. A year later, the writer of the same fashion column had given up the campaign to dress all women in the skirtless suits and admitted that these imports “... are worn by expert swimmers, who do not wish to be encumbered with bulky clothing.” Such practical bathing dress was thus limited to a very small number of progressive women.
The majority, consisting of those who were strictly bathers, wore the ankle-length drawers beneath a long dress as described or illustrated in the majority of sources that originated in the United States. Why was the European bathing suit not fully adopted by American women? Differences between the bathing customs of the two continents undoubtedly encouraged the development of different dress. While men and women in the United States bathed together freely at the seashore during the latter half of the 19th century, this practice was not widely accepted in England until the early 1900s. In the presence of men, American women probably felt compelled to retain their more concealing dress and drawers.
In England swimming seems to have been more popular among women than it was in the United States. While encouraging its readers to swim, during the late 1860s,Queen’s Magazine used forceful language of a kind that was not found in American publications until the late 19th century. If swimming was more acceptable as a feminine exercise in England it is understandable why English women were more receptive to a functional, skirtless bathing suit—especially since it was worn only in the presence of other women."
When I'm researching any topic, I try to cast a very large net, I try to capture every bit of knowledge I can find. Having done that, I start to evaluate the strength and veracity of each bit - is it a primary source? Can it be verified? How does it fit with the other evidence? 
In the case of bathing costumes, I've found fashion plates with descriptions, I've found a very few original garments, I've found a very few extant photographs, I've found written lessons regarding swimming lessons, etc. 
When I sift through it all, some items need to be set aside, they just can't be sufficiently verified - I'm not rejecting them, but I'm not yet accepting them either. 
I need to use my knowledge of 1860's dress in general and short sleeves are not acceptable for adult women during the day in this time period.
Getting it "right" is very important to me and I'd rather err to the side of being too conservative when creating my 1860's clothing - I can always cut the sleeves off if future research shows it to be within the norm.
So I currently stand by my conclusion that short sleeved bathing costumes are not appropriate in the 1860's - at least in America. 


  1. The first illustration in question is from La Mode Illustree, July 20, 1863, http://books.google.com/books?id=-xl0bRLQtSwC&pg=PA229#v=onepage&q&f=false. The change in sleeve on that one is very intriguing in light of some other differences I think I'm seeing between the European plates and US versions. I'm going to have to start looking at sleeve lengths more than I have been.

    The second is from Godey's, July 1867, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015027389371?urlappend=%3Bseq=9 . If it came out of a European magazine I either haven't run into it yet or I failed to save it.

    1. Thank you so much for tracking these down!

  2. Have you seen this bathing suit? Scroll up one page (181)

    I enjoyed you post.

    1. Thank you! I had not found this one, but did find images of an extant bathing costume that is very similar.