I am no swimmer. Growing up, I never advanced beyond the shallow end of the pool. As an adult I summoned the courage–twice!–to take beginner swimming classes but chickened out after the first session both times.
So when I saw that what would be showing at the Fashion and Textile Museum during my recent stay in London would be a century’s worth of swimsuits and resort wear, I can’t say I was very excited. I wouldn’t be going in order to pick up ideas for sewing a vintage swimsuit and resort wear wardrobe for myself, that was for sure.
But the reason I had steeled myself to try learning to swim was because swimming always looked so natural and fun in a way that other healthful social activities–say, jogging–never could.
And the settings for swimming, whether or not you actually take a dip, can be so glamorous and evocative. A lot of swimwear probably never has been in a pool or the sea. Its main purpose, like all fashion, I suppose, has been to create certain feelings and associations in its wearers and their observers–feelings and associations that have exerted a powerful pull even on a swimming-averse person like me.
Plodding the length of the Portobello Road market in a pouring rain to visit some favorite button vendors (for naught, it turned out) one recent Friday morning decided me to escape overcast and chilly London for the sun and warmth of Riviera Style that afternoon.The exhibit begins by immersing the viewer in the carefree worlds conjured up by travel posters dating from between the wars and the 1950s. Then the swimwear and resort wear are arranged chronologically.
The first section, “Bathing Beauties,” covers 1895 to 1919.
We’ve all seen quaint swimming costumes in still pictures or silent films, but to see them up close was even more interesting. I wondered,
- Was this unattractively clingy when wet?
- This must have been scratchy!
- What did they wear underneath? A corset?
This is in such great condition. Was it ever used for its intended purpose?This last outfit had such nice details I took some closeups. Minus the bloomers, this looks like a nice dress–although, on second thought at the time it would have been indecent to wear in public.
No, even for strolling on the beach, the proper family circa 1910 would be decked out like this:
If you did venture into the water you might protect your voluminous hairstyle with this rubber swim cap, dated 1900-1920. Next followed “Cling, Bag, Stretch” covering 1920 to 1939. The lights were low and I couldn’t get so close to the clothes, unfortunately. From the brochure for the show, I learned, “Up until the 1930s men were required by law to cover their torsos, but swimsuits with cut-out sections (for men and women) tested the boundaries.” Now I understand this style suit for men.
In the next section, “Mould & Control,”covering 1940 to 1959, I began recognizing colors and styles I grew up around. Bright colors, happy, naive prints:
Swimsuits that look matronly or dowdy today were nevertheless exciting to buy, and possibly wear, in postwar America and Britain. With advances in fabrics suits were getting lighter and were holding their shape better.
One consequence of better fitting and performing swimsuits was–swimsuit contests. I had never made the connection before.
A souvenir from your vacation might be a scarf with a resort motif:The next section of the show, entitled “Body Beautiful,” covered 1960 to 1989. I neglected to take a picture of the display as a whole, probably because the only novelties for me were the swimming caps, which reminded me of the one I tried on during my visit to The Alley Vintage and Costume back in March. By now, suffering from swimwear fatigue I gave only a passing glance to the last section of the show, “Second Skin: 1990 Onwards.” “Riviera Style” tells a story of advances in fabrics that stretch and recover beautifully, hold and shape the figure, and even increase speed. These advances responded to–and spurred–new desires, needs, changes, and opportunities in society.
Train travel, air travel, ocean liners, wealthy people’s pastimes, seaside resorts, government-mandated vacations, movies, television, nylon, lastex, elastane, the Olympics–and much more–have played a bigger role in the existence and looks of swimwear than I had ever imagined before.
But did the show inspire me to give swimming lessons another try?
‘Fraid not. I’m staying safely poolside.
“Riviera Style: Resort & Swimwear Since 1900” is showing at the Fashion and Textile Museum through August 30, 2015.
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