Curator's Choice: The raciness, modesty and nudity of bygone British bathing beauties

By Ben Miller | 12 June 2013

Curator's Choice: Karen Snowden, the Head of Collections at Scarborough Museums Trust, on bathing costumes through the centuries...

A photo of two bathing costumes
“The history of the bathing costume is closely aligned to the history of Scarborough as a seaside resort. The town was one of the first to use bathing machines – essentially changing rooms on wheels – starting in the 1730s.
They gave their wealthy inhabitants a place to change into their bathing clothes with the help of an attendant, or dipper. The machines were then horse-drawn into the sea, and bathers got straight into the water, keeping their modesty intact.

The bathing dress worn by women at that time was a simple linen or wool shift, shapeless and covering the whole body from the neck to the ankles, often with ties between the ankles to prevent immodesty when the water got underneath. Men, on the other hand, bathed in the nude.

By 1840, women were wearing drawers as underwear. This led to the development of a new bathing dress in wool, cotton or linen, of knee-length breeches or drawers covered by a long tunic which followed the fashionable line of the dress.

Men were gradually forced to show some modesty and adopt the use of caleçons, or bathing drawers.

By the beginning of the 20th century, things had got a little racier – in 1907, Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested in Boston, Massachusetts, for indecent exposure after wearing a one-piece bathing suit in public.

During the late 20s and 30s, bathing costumes were rather shapeless and unflattering, although they exposed a lot more flesh than ever before.

In 1928, the term ‘maillot’, first used to describe tight-fitting one-piece jersey suits like the red one here, entered the dictionary.

But as the century progressed, bathing beauties became ever more body-conscious.

In 1930, the designer Elsa Schiaparelli patented a backless swimsuit with a built-in bra to allow strap-free tanning, and in 1935 American designer Claire Cardell created a cut-out maillot that was seen as the forerunner of the bikini.

And by the second half of the last century, influenced by Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, many were specifically designed to enhance a woman’s curves.

New fabrics like Bri-Nylon were introduced: they kept their shape, unlike the knitted jersey fabrics of a couple of decades earlier, which sagged unflatteringly and sometimes embarrassingly when wet.

The two-piece swimsuit so familiar today, and so unthinkable a century earlier, was only introduced in 1946, when designers Louis Reard and Jaques Heim simultaneously launched the first bikini, named after Bikini Atoll, where nuclear bombs were tested.

Only five years later, in 1951, the first Miss World Contest was won by Swede Kiki Hakansson, sporting the scantiest of outfits. She was later condemned by the Pope, and became the only Miss World ever to be crowned in her bikini.

Interestingly, the Miss World Organisation has just announced that this year’s pageant, which will take place in September, will not feature the bikini as it would be ‘disrespectful’ to host country Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country. Perhaps things are coming full circle.”

  • Karen Snowden will give an illustrated talk, From Dippers to Bathing Beauties – the Evolution of the Bathing Costume, at 12.30pm on July 5 at Scarborough Art Gallery. Telephone 01723 374753 for more details.
  • Last Stop Scarborough, a new exhibition examining the history of Scarborough as a holiday resort, runs at Scarborough Art Gallery from July 6 2013 to January 5 2014.
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