ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Bathing Costumes: Why Did Victorian Fashion Designers Hate Women?

Updated on July 27, 2010
Click thumbnail to view full-size
A jobs stimulus package for the textiles industryWould this vixen's satin survive a single watery dip? The latest styles for Kamikazi swimmersStranded by low tide or lecherous young men? Did Beale realize his modesty wagon was the perfect place for a little cootchy-coo? The morality wagon shielding femme fatales from beachside oglers. Annette Kellerman modeling her "indecent" bathing suit.       "... styling herself as an exotic mermaid, she flaunted her Australian identity, uttering the bushman's 'coee-ee' as she leapt from the high board."       Stephen, GoadTrollops vamping a naive man as they stroll on the beach. Floozies flaunting their nakedness
A jobs stimulus package for the textiles industry
A jobs stimulus package for the textiles industry
Would this vixen's satin survive a single watery dip?
Would this vixen's satin survive a single watery dip?
The latest styles for Kamikazi swimmers
The latest styles for Kamikazi swimmers
Stranded by low tide or lecherous young men?
Stranded by low tide or lecherous young men?
Did Beale realize his modesty wagon was the perfect place for a little cootchy-coo?
Did Beale realize his modesty wagon was the perfect place for a little cootchy-coo?
The morality wagon shielding femme fatales from beachside oglers.
The morality wagon shielding femme fatales from beachside oglers.
Annette Kellerman modeling her "indecent" bathing suit.       "... styling herself as an exotic mermaid, she flaunted her Australian identity, uttering the bushman's 'coee-ee' as she leapt from the high board."       Stephen, Goad
Annette Kellerman modeling her "indecent" bathing suit. "... styling herself as an exotic mermaid, she flaunted her Australian identity, uttering the bushman's 'coee-ee' as she leapt from the high board." Stephen, Goad
Trollops vamping a naive man as they stroll on the beach.
Trollops vamping a naive man as they stroll on the beach.
Floozies flaunting their nakedness
Floozies flaunting their nakedness

Pity the poor Victorian woman sent to the beach in a hot, scratchy wool suit. Covered from head to toe, her bathing costume contained weights so she could demurely drown rather than have her skirts float up and titillate leering men with glimpses of stockinged ankles.

Beaches were often segregated, but spyglasses were handy, so even then she had few choices: suffer in the hot noonday sun or slowly sink beneath the waves.

Despite the untimely demise of a few of their readers, fashion magazines continued to hawk serge, satin and mohair bathing costumes. Heavy with full skirts, lavish ruffles and hem weights, a woman didn't need a gym to tone up. She simply walked across the sand while wearing the latest style. Her costume gained another fifteen pounds when soaked in salt water. Some required petticoats underneath. Others were simpler when matched with bloomers and leggings.

So dire was the need to conceal women's bodies that Benjamin Beale, a Quaker, took pity on women who gazed longingly at the sea. With a little ingenuity and a lot of Puritanical morality to guide him, he devised a bathing wagon: a horse-drawn cart completely enclosed when the doors were shut. This suffocating box was pulled a few feet into the ocean so women could retain their privacy. Inside, they hurriedly peeled off their voluminous dresses, replaced them with equally voluminous bathing costumes and emerged into the surf with the back doors of the wagon shielding them from the view of oglers on the shore.

Ropes to prevent being swept out to sea

The origin of the clinging women myth
The origin of the clinging women myth

More brazen women who defied public decency laws by exposing their ankles were hauled off in a paddy wagon before they could corrupt their fellow sun worshipers. But by the 1920s, even the threat of jail didn't stop women from shedding their frocks and slipping into something more suitable for swimming. Women earning their own money weren't about to let men be the only people enjoying the cooling water after a long day in the factories.

Skirts shortened while leggings lengthened, still keeping the ankles covered until Annette Kellermann, the Australian mermaid, dared to reveal her skin-tight body suit. Shocked onlookers watched as she blithely swam into the ocean's depths. Kellermann refused to wear the title of wicked woman as she was brought before a Boston judge. Swimming is a healhty exercise, she argued. To everyone's surprise, the judge agreed, freeing her from cumbersome bathing costumes as long as she wore a robe to the water's edge. By the next year, women were emulating her, ignoring those who called them salacious hussies.


Not to be outdone, the fashion designers changed tact. Their styles became ever briefer, but the less yardage they used, the more expensive their suits became. When the bikini hit the shores in the 1940s, the morals police knew the world was destined to implode. Sixty years later, the dire warnings are still being sounded, but why all the worry? Aren't we just moving back to the first item of clothing to see the light of day? If a fig leaf was good enough for Eve, a truly cutting-edge fashion goddess, then it's good enough for me.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Serafim profile image

      Serafim 5 years ago from Utah

      Very amusing article, and an interesting question!

    • Seeker7 profile image

      Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

      What a fabulous article! To be honest I didn't know what accolade suited this best - interesting, awesome or funny! So I put all three in.

      Those poor women way back then! I would have stayed at home I think rather than spoil a good day at the beach having to wear frocks, petty coats and weights! But as you say, very good for knocking off a few pounds. I really admire the women in the later 19th century and early 20th century, who basically started to bring women back into the place in society they belonged. This was never easy for these women and many were shunned, but boy they had guts and stamina. Thankfully for them, we have nice bathing suits or bikinis to enjoy the sea or pool to the best advanatage!

      I know the old quaker guy meant well - but I thought that contraption he invented for keeping bathing private was hilarious. After sweating your backside off in there you'd be lucky if you had the energy to do any bathing at all!

      I loved this hub, it was fascinating. Voted up!

    • Loretta Kemsley profile image
      Author

      Loretta Kemsley 5 years ago from California

      Thank you, Seeker. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I was researching for a book I was writing, came across these strange customs and thought, this is just too good. I have to share it.

    • My Esoteric profile image

      My Esoteric 5 years ago from Keystone Heights, FL

      Very cool hub, I will be sharing it as well. It does give me an idea though: I am old, so I don't care what people think anymore, I need to lose weight, and I don't like exercising on purpose ,,,

    • Loretta Kemsley profile image
      Author

      Loretta Kemsley 5 years ago from California

      Isn't it lovely how growing older provides us with so much more freedom from the dictates of others? It is the best part of being this age.

      I too do not like to exercise just to exercise, but I found a curious development in my life: I'd quit doing many things I loved. I have no idea why except I got out of the habit. So I started doing them again, and my exercise level automatically increased.

      You might want to reexamine your passions too and see if there are any you've given up without a good reason. Even if you don't lose weight, it'll bring a lot of happiness back into your life.

    Click to Rate This Article