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Bathing Costumes: Why Did Victorian Fashion Designers Hate Women?
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
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.
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© 2010 Loretta Kemsley