How to date seaside fashions


20 August 2016
Discover the origins of our modern beachwear, with dress historian Jayne Shrimpton

Part of the fun of going away is packing beachwear and the usual holiday paraphernalia, but today’s requisites took centuries to evolve, reflecting changing needs, shifting attitudes and new inventions. Jayne Shrimpton considers the origins of seaside resorts and how our forebears’ experiences differed from our own. 

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Taking the waters

Our love of the seaside dates back 300 years and originated with the spas that arose at the location of natural hot springs or sources of mineral waters, visited for curative and therapeutic purposes. In Britain, Aquae Sulis (Bath) was developed by the Romans in the 60s-70s AD and by the Middle Ages spa resorts were scattered throughout Europe; these establishments were often later linked with immorality. Indeed by the Georgian era, fashionable spa towns like Bath were frequented as much for their social opportunities and relaxed, often liberal ambience as for their restorative waters. 

In the early 18th century, sea bathing also began to attract the leisured classes, as an extension of the traditional health regime. Sea water was thought to have similar medicinal properties to spas: the first thesis on the subject dates to 1697 and by the mid-1700s learned medical publications were extolling the benefits of sea water. By the later 18th century sea bathing was well established among the social elite and many fishing and smuggling ports and coastal hamlets were expanding into fashionable resorts along England’s shores.

Seaside resorts

Scarborough is said to be the world’s first seaside resort and both Scarborough and Whitby in North Yorkshire were beginning to develop into sophisticated, commercial towns before 1720.

Elsewhere, by the mid-18th century Margate, Brighton, Weymouth and other well-appointed settlements were also attracting a fashionable clientele seeking luxury, entertainment and pleasure, as well as the invigorating sea water.

In 1789 King George III first bathed at Weymouth, Dorset, using a bathing machine, thereafter becoming a regular visitor. Royal approval also extended to Brighton, which, patronised by the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent then King George IV), was notorious for its decadence and frivolity between the 1780s and 1820s.

Further seaside watering places included Blackpool, Bournemouth and Southend-on-Sea, these and other Georgian resorts being reached by regular stage coach services or post/mail coach. They offered summer visitors seafront hotels and boarding houses, shops, public houses and even theatres, as well as bathing amenities.

After the mid-19th century, visiting the seaside became increasingly popular as the growing railway network offered inexpensive train fares to hundreds of coastal destinations. With changes in working hours and increased leisure time for many, eventually even the working classes could take breaks and day trips to the seaside. Piers, promenades, funfairs, Punch and Judy shows, donkey rides and other attractions offered entertainment, while beach photographers provided photographic souvenirs. During the early-mid 20th century many families enjoyed annual holidays at the English seaside. 

Bathing machines & beach huts

In around 1735 the bathing machine was invented to provide privacy for those taking a dip – a horse-drawn wooden carriage or hut on wheels which transported bathers down to the water, thought to have first been used in Scarborough. It contained an enclosed room for changing out of street clothes and featured a collapsible hood at the sea end to shield scantily-clad bathers as they entered the depths, attended by ‘dippers’.

Despite such early provisions for preserving modesty, mixed bathing seems to have been fairly common until the early-mid 19th century, when more secluded and segregated arrangements became usual, the machines for male and female bathers set well apart.

Some early commentators remarked that bathing machines were fashionable toys for the rich and that the less affluent bathed naked or semi-naked from unfashionable stretches of the beach. Nonetheless photographs and picture postcards reveal the popularity of basic wooden machines on English beaches during the mid-late Victorian and Edwardian eras.

By the 1890s many beachgoers were, however, demanding mixed bathing again, after decades of Victorian prudery, and early in the new century it became acceptable to walk on the beach wearing a swimsuit. Villages of striped Edwardian changing tents sprung up and at the same time the wheels of some bathing machines were removed, transforming them into fixed changing huts, purpose-designed day huts also being built. Bathing machines lingered on in some resorts during the 1920s and 1930s, the last relics disappearing with the Second World War. 

Early bathing costumes 

Sea bathing being a new pursuit in the 18th century, the costumes first worn in the sea at Georgian resorts like Scarborough and Brighton closely followed the clothes used for the thermal baths at Bath, which essentially derived from undergarments.

Initially some men and boys bathed naked, as they had always done, but most wore knee-length linen drawers and, as the demands of modesty increased, a jacket-like upper garment or ‘waistcoat’ was added.

Women typically donned a long, loose-fitting shift made with a high neck and full sleeves, the hems sometimes sewn with weights to avoid the embarrassment of floating dresses. Bathing clothes were fashioned either from stout linen or, more usually, woollen flannel, recommended for extra warmth and protection in the chilly sea.

Heads were usually covered, men wearing caps like regular nightcaps and women linen caps that resembled fashionable day caps, sometimes adding straw hats and bonnets. 

Victorian modes

During the 19th century ladies’ bathing attire became more stylish and attractive – at least to contemporary eyes. Fashion plates from the 1860s show ladies wearing heavy flannel or serge ‘paletot’ dresses with fitted bodices and full skirts, echoing the crinoline gown then in vogue: knee-length, these bathing dresses were worn with long ‘Turkish’ pants similar to the trousers being advocated for daywear by Amelia Bloomer and other dress reformers. Mob-style caps protected the head from the cold, while flat cloth or straw sunhats shaded delicate white faces from the sun.

Victorian swimwear changed slowly, although gradually the bloomers rose to calf-length and sleeves might be reduced to a shoulder cap.

Meanwhile male swimsuits were by now of leotard-like design, with a chest section (to bare the chest was considered unseemly) and usually made with sleeves, the legs reaching to the knee. These close-fitting woollen costumes were more functional than earlier versions, better-suited to energetic male swimming, whereas most ladies still bathed in a more genteel fashion. 

Edwardian innovations

Like everyday dress, the history of 20th century beachwear is one of progressive minimalism and practicality. By the Edwardian era, women’s cumbersome ensembles had slimmed down, the bloomers or drawers now ending around the knee and voluminous dresses evolving into shorter tunics belted at the waist and featuring short or capped sleeves and sailor-style collars. These outfits were sometimes worn with bare calves and feet but were often teamed with modest black stockings and laced pumps, and topped with a cap or turban-like scarf.

Change was in the air, however, following a growth in athletic activities during the early 1900s, as girls and women increasingly joined men in the sport of swimming. Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman rebelled against rigid dress codes and devised the unitard – a radical combination-style one-piece bathing suit that initially had long legs to the ankles, but led to her arrest in Boston in 1907 when she wore a short-legged version. Although considered indecent at the time, the streamlined, figure-hugging costumes that she championed marked the beginning of modern swimwear.  

Modern swimwear 

Modesty is also a personal consideration and during the 1910s and early 1920s some women preferred the traditional concealing two-piece bathing suits, although the garments grew briefer still, the tunic neckline lowering, sleeves reducing to broad shoulder straps and hemlines rising, the drawers becoming thigh-length shorts. Yet some found the bulky serge or woollen cloth layers a hindrance and, as reservations about revealing the body’s contours progressively relaxed, the once-controversial one-piece female costume with legs ending around mid-thigh became more popular – a style sometimes called a maillot, similar to men’s swimwear. These costumes became especially close-fitting when stretchy cotton and woollen jersey fabrics began to be used during the 1920s and were often striped, or had coloured trims, while rubber bathing caps (suitable for bobbed hair) and rubber two-tone beach shoes also became fashionable. 

By the late 1920s suntans were becoming fashionable, now that tanned skin implied leisure rather than outdoor manual toil, and by the 1930s the trend was widespread. Accordingly, swimwear was designed to reveal more flesh, female costumes now featuring low backs, cut-away sides, narrow shoulder straps or halter-necklines and legs ending at the top of the thigh, the hips covered by a fitted modesty skirt. Elasticated synthetic fabric such as lastex began to be used, although stretchy jersey material was still common at this date.

Sleek, athletic costumes were well-suited to the new interest in health and physical fitness, the 1930s also witnessing the proliferation of public outdoor lidos. Respectable men’s costumes retained a sleeveless vest section until mid-decade, but finally baring the chest became acceptable and male swimwear of the late 1930s and 1940s usually comprised a pair of short-legged trunks, whose webbing waist belts gave a tailored effect.

1946 marked the official unveiling of the daring two-piece female bikini that bared the midriff (named after Bikini Atoll in the Pacific), although versions had been worn since about 1929. Many women found the skimpier post-war bikini too risqué, but the glamorous corseted swimsuits of the 1940s and 1950s, with or without straps, featuring shaped stomach panels, boning and bra cups were arguably as alluring.

Casual wear and beach accessories 

Our Victorian and Edwardian ancestors often lounged on the sand or pebbles in their everyday clothes, sheltered by parasols, but the new inter-war custom of relaxing on the beach in bathing attire, instead of changing immediately before and after going in the sea, required new covering garments.

In the 1920s women might wear a short, lightweight dress over their swimsuit or longer towelling or waterproofed printed silk wrap. During the 1930s beach pyjamas became fashionable – wide-legged trousers worn with backless sun-tops or sleeveless blouses. The first short sundresses also appeared, inspiring the strapless or halter-neck printed cotton sundresses and playsuits of the 1940s and 1950s.

Shorts (boys’ playwear for decades) became acceptable casual wear for both men and women during the 1930s, being worn on the beach and for active outdoor pursuits like cycling, rambling and camping. Shorts and new short-sleeved, open-necked sports shirts that freed the limbs were especially liberating for men, satisfying some of the demands of the Men’s Dress Reform Party (1929-40). Cool, open sandals were also first widely worn by men and women in the 1930s.

Jayne Shrimpton is a professional dress historian, portrait specialist and ‘photo detective’ and contributes regularly to Family Tree. She is photograph consultant for TV series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and her latest books are Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family PhotographsFashion in the 1940s and Victorian Fashion. Find her online at

Don't miss Jayne's latest article in Family Tree August, when she examines the origins of British foreign travel and the Grand Tour.