*** bathing seaside resorts and clothing

Bathing and Seaside Resorts and Clothing

boys beach clothing
Figure 1.--This American boy wears a white knee pants sailor suit and floppy wide-brimmed hat. Also notice the white strap shoes with lottle bows. It's obviously a casual day to day wear item rather than a "Sunday best" item. Check out that unusual hat.The photograph was probably taken about 1905.

Outings to the beach began in 18th Century Europe for the wealthy. By the late 19th Century even people of modest means were acquiring the habit of seeking a vacation and the seafront was a popular choice. Many were going to the beach, to escape the heat of the inner city. Many large cities had nearby beach resorts. Beachwear did not just mean swimwear. Well to do people in the 19th century might bring extensive wardrobes to beach resorts which could be used for strolling along the beach are playing genteel games on the beautifully manicured grounds. And of course one always dressed up for dinner. This began to change as working class people began to take vacations as well. The clothes they wore, while perhaps casual by the convention of the day, seem amazingly formal and heavy to our modern eyes. One of the most popular choices for boys was the white or light-colored sailor suits.

Seaside Resorts

Sea side resorts were popular even in atiquity. Herculinium near Pompey, for example, was a popular resort in ancient Rome. It was destroyed by the same eruption that destroyed Pompei, but it doing so left us a perfectly preserved example of a Roman seaside resort. After the fall of Rome the idea of a seaside villa disappeared from the European experience as did the idea of a vacation itself. Only many yeears later was the idea of sea bathing as a healthful, enjoable vacation experience revived in Europe. Information is most available on England and English seaside resorts. While England appears to have lead the way, the seaside at about the same time was becoming popular in France and other countries as well. The first references in modern Europe that I am aware of were in England. As an island people surrounded by the sea, the English have an historic fascination for the seaside. Few Englishmen now live more than two hours travel by road or rail. The English have a varied coast. From the rocky, craggy Cornish coastline, to the fabeled limestone cliffs of the Channel coast, to the flatlands of East Anglia, and the wild North Sea cliffs of East Yorkshire. Another Victorian innovation which formed the centrepiece of many resorts was the pier. Many British seaside towns built piers. Beach resorts also began to become popular in France in the late 18th century. I have little information on developments in France. however, because of my inability to access French sources. There were many important seaside resports in the 19th century. Some images do provide insights into beachwear. Like England, fashions appear to our modern eye to have been very formal, hardly suitable for what we now consider to be beachwear. The seaside was also popular in Germany. Beaches on lakes near Berlin were popular day trips. There were also seaside resorts on the Baltic coast. Unfortuntly, the German seaside Baltic resorts are in the north, just the opposite of the French Mediteranean beach resorts located in the South. This limited the seasonal appeal of the German resorts. I have no information about American interest in the seaside and bathing during the 18th and early 19th century. After the Civil War, however, as the populatin of the great northeastern cities began to increase, there was great interest in seaside outings by all classes of society. People wanted to escape the sweltering tempeartures of the increasingly crowded cities for at least a short time during the summer. Wealthy peoole might spend the entire summer at beach resorts or their own summer "cottages". Beach resorts began to appear in the 1870s and by the 1880s, hundreds of beach resorts dotted the eastern seaboard. The impetus for this explosion was the steamy industrial cities of the northeast. A rising industrial workforce had more buying power than ever before and craved relief from the heat of the tenaments. A newly affluent middle class vitually created the concept of the summer vacation. (For rural America, the summer was hardly a time for vacation, it was a time of increased work caring for and harvesting the years crop.) The idea of a seaside vacation was buttressed by new ideas about the healthful benefits of sea bathing.


There were a wide ranhe of activities at the beach. This varied somewhat chronologically. The most important activity might be thought of as sea bathing. In early years this was not nearly as important as it is now. This ws because until, the 20th century, many people did not know how to swim. Age was also a factor here. Younger children might be only allowed to paddle along the beach. A favorite activity was in fact playing in the sand. This was a wonderful activity for children, alowing them to exercise their creativity. All could participate as it didn't cost anything. Building san castles became an art. We know that this was very popular in America and Britain and suspect it was a popular activity in many other countries as well. And there was a wide rnge of rides and activities which developed for children and adults at major beach resports as covered above.

Constructed Bathing Facilities/Bathhouses

The construction of bathing facilities began in ancient times. In fact it was more common in ancient times than in modern times until the very recent modern era. The earliest pool we know of is the "great bath" built at Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley. Archeologists believe it was built during the 3rd millennium BC. The pool measured 12x7 meters. It was dug out and then constructed with bricks and a tar-based sealant. Another anint civilization which built pools was the Sinhalese who cobnstructed "Kuttam Pokuna" (4th century BC). This was a pair of pools in the Anuradhapura Kingom , located in what is now Sri Lanka. Better known were the baths of the Greeks and Romans, especially the Romans. These pools were used for athletic training, nautical games, and military exercises. The Romans also built imposing indoor baths for the public. Here people bathed as well as swam. The baths were an important social institution in Rome. Baths were built where ever Romans went, even on the outskirts of the empire, sych as Bath in England. The most imposing bath was built in Rome itself--the baths of Caracala. After the fall of Rome bathing went out of style in Europe and was actually considered unhealty if not dangerous, so obvioulsly pools were not built. Sea bathing began to revive in the late 18th century and this was eventually reflected in the construction of pools, including indoor pools. The first indoor pools we know of were in London. One 1837 report describes six indoor pools complete with diving boards. Indoor pools gradually apperared in other cities in Europe and North America and they were quite common by the turn of the 20th century. A factor here was the hygene of the working-class. The YMCA played an important role of building indoor bathing facilities. The revival of the Olympic Games (1896) played a mjor role in popularizing swiming sports which in turn encouraged the construction of indoor and outdoor pools.

Beach Resort Clothes

Clothing for beach resorts and seaside vacations did not just mean swimwear and other casual clothing. Well to do people in the 19th century might bring extensive wardrobes to beach resorts which could be used for strolling along the beach are playing genteel games on the beautifully manicured grounds. And of course one always dressed up for dinner. This began to change as working class people began to take vacations as well. The clothes they wore, while perhaps casual by the convention of the day, seem amazingly formal and heavy to our modern eyes. One of the most popular choices for boys was the white or light-colored sailor suits. Bathing costumes for women by the late 19th century had been simplified to a voile-and-cotton ensembkle covered by a short skirt and completed by long black stockings, low rubber shoes, and an oiled-silk cap. Corsets were no longer required. Patterns were diseminated through patterns published in magazines like Godey's Lady's Book, Peterson's, Demerset's Monthly Magazine and full-scale patterns available that were intoduced by Butterick's in the 1860s. As the turn of the century approached, lighter, short-sleeved bathing suits became fashionable. American ladies preferred light flannels, cottons, linens, and muslins wheras heavier, darker fabrics were preferred in Europe. Harper's Weekly suggested than American women were much more daring than European. Men wore two piece wool knit suits. Stripped suits were particularly popular. I'm afraid I don't have much yet on children's atire at seaside resorts. It is another topic that we hope to eventually research. Actual bathing costumes often had sailor motifs. Poor boys couldn't aford bathing costumes and might go swiming in their underwear. In secluded locations the might go skinny dipping when they were with their mates. However at beach resorts by the Victorian era, bathing costumes were required, even for small children. Not much information yet on bathing costumes, but I am beginning to collect some. Actually beachwear at the turn of the century did not mean just bathing suits. Boys wore the same suits to the beach that they wore for every day. Linnen or other light-weight sailor suits were of course popular outfits for boys on excursions to the beach in the late 19th century.


Early bathing suits seem to have been just that. One wonders how people swam in them. This was especially true of the women's bathing costumes. Actual swimsuits began to appear in the 20th century, especially after world War I. There are quite a range of swimwear in varying designs and using many different fabrics. Thec styles have varied over time and among countries. Unlike other athletic wear, there has often been a disconnect beyween competive swim suits and the casual suits worn by children and adults.


Seaside resorts by the late 19th century were well-established resorts. Sea bathing for the wealthy became popular in the 18th century. The seaside did not become a possibility for the average person until the late 19th century. This was a side affect of the industrial revolution. The new railroads provided the neans of apidly transporting lage numbers of people, rapidly, and at low cost. Another product of the developing industrial work place--the paid vacation. Many workers would flock to the seaside for their vacations. This occurred first in England where the industrial revolution was the most advanced and beaches were closest to the industrial cities. The vacationers loved to have their portraits taken which provide a wonderful chronological record of fashions.


The beach first became popular in England during the 18th century. Visits to the beach became popular throughout Europe and America. There were substantial variations from country to country first in chronological deblopments. There were a;so variations in beach conventions. One major variation was access to beaches. Once railroads developed, few Britons lived more than 2 hours from the coast. Most Germans and Austrians lived at considerable distrances from a coast. This was even more so in the case of America. Of course beaches are not just located along sea coasts. Children in inland locations could still enloy lakes and rivers. While there were differences from country to country as to enjoying the beach, as far as we can tell beach clothing was quite similar, until after World War II.


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Created: September 6, 1998
Last updated: 10:55 AM 9/2/2021