Picture of the Week: A Peep at the Mermaids of Margate

A Naked bathers and bathing machines
A Peep at the Mermaids – Margate – G.M. Woodward

The History of Swimming Costumes

On a sultry summer’s day, what could be more natural and liberating than to dip into a lake or river to complete the picture of scenic perfection?  

In calm waters, swimmers get twice the view as water mirrors the colour and adds texture to the panorama they swim into.

We love to live and holiday close to water; in fact you only have to mention a ‘sea view’, for house and holiday prices jump up.  

Across Scotland, in parts of Wales and throughout Europe, swimming is as much a part of the summertime experience as it was in England not so many years ago; then the 1970s TV safety film: Dark and Lonely Water, lit the screen and cast gloom over the concept of outdoor swimming. The ‘Grim Reaper’ we were shown, stood ready to take the life of any fool that dared swim in open water and we could be sure that summertime fun would lead to tragedy. Swimmers were persuaded that they really did need to ‘KEEP OUT’, leaving the sport of outdoor swimming to those ruffians who would dip regardless, and, just because they had been told not to. You might think this an oversimplification of matters, and you would be right. A great many factors combined to achieve the outdoor swimming status quo in England, so many factors, that I thought it would make a good read for all those interested in returning to the outdoors, and so I published: Hung Out to Dry, Swimming and British Culture.

Yet swimming is so innocuous that it hardly seems possible for the activity to have had more than a fleeting influence on the culture and history of Britain. Thinking further though and it’s obvious that all swimming necessitates a degree of pantomime as even the most cosseted among us will need to change into our wet suit ready for our swim. Unlike other sports, the act of getting changed, what we wear when wet and the process of getting into the water has influenced the way society has perceived what came to be a very British outdoor sport.

Bathing was fundamental to our Roman invaders and was widely practiced along with swimming, for centuries. Later Church morality motivated abstinence among the faithful, a position reinforced when the plagues of the Middle Ages swept whole families away. The only protection against disease, people were told, was to remain unwashed, so that the skins pores would become blocked with dirt preventing deathly vapours from infiltration the body. At this time in history bathing was considered to be a very risky exercise and it took centuries before the traditions of the ‘great unwashed’ were questioned. When bathing became good for you again, cleanliness was deemed next to Godliness and the righteous were encouraged to bathe as often as once a week. But it was soon discovered that much more fun could be had, especially in cold water, by learning to swim.

As time passed, the bathing machine was invented allowing participants to bow to proprietary by getting changed in privacy whilst being transported into a screen of deep waters. Yet mixed bathing, when it was introduced, presented moral dilemmas unheard of whilst bathers were separated by gender. As a culture, the British have danced around the issues of morality ever since, with a variety of attitudes surfacing at different points in time. Yet as our bathing culture spread aboard so a similar evolution in social mores was sparked worldwide. The bathing machine, invented here in the UK, became an essential part of beach life overseas as British prudery was exported along with the seaside holiday experience. In the end a changed morality allowed bathing machines to be converted into beach huts, or burned in symbol of the liberality of the times. It was much the same with the emancipation of women but it made for a much bigger fire.

This aspect of British bathing history now seems but a bizarre part of our eccentric past. Yet this important milestone in the evolution of our culture popped the cork from the bottle. The Seaside holiday evolved from its humble and secretive beginnings into an obsession with sunbathing and physical exposure. Swimming costumes developed from coverall into none at all for hardy eccentrics, or at least ‘cover little’ for the rest of us.

When listening to a series of paper round experiences just the other week on Radio 4, Melanie Walters (of Gavin and Stacey) recounted her adventures living in the Mumbles as a young girl of 11 in the 1970s. Not only did she often enjoy a solitary sea swim whilst on route, but sometimes in the summer she did the whole thing dressed ready for her swim in her “little white and red check bikini,” yet she observes; “that wouldn’t happen today.” And she’s right. Attitudes have changed greatly in the decades since, and this becomes obvious when sharing holiday photographs with our children, the differences in seaside fashions from when we were young are promptly observed.

The magnetic Lido era drew swimmers in from rivers, lakes and the seaside, with diving boards, slides and cafes offering an altogether more civilised outdoor swimming experience. Yet at the same time these Lidos put bathers on show for spectators who gathered in great numbers to watch the spectacle of the scantily clad, cavorting in the water. Beauty contests spawned a trend to judge others by their appearance and this concept has now matured so that even young children diet in hope of attaining physical perfection. Bathing fashions have changed so much over time, that even in Australia (the birthplace of Speedo swimwear) as here in Britain, swimming trunks have dropped from favour with board shorts replacing them on the beach and in the pool. Trunks may survive for the sake of speed at competitions but they have been outlawed at Alton Towers for three years now on grounds of etiquette. Yet for hygiene’s sake brief swimming trunks are seen as essential at swimming pools in France to this day. In England, men and boys more fashion conscious than ever, wear baggy shorts to hide their shape on the beach despite the half mast trousers fashion on the street.

In an effort to disguise and to hide swimmers from view, specific river bathing areas became necessary when Matthew Webb opened the floodgates to outdoor swimming by conquering the Channel in 1875. Boys in particular took the challenge to heart, unperturbed that a lack of swimwear was scandalising the ladies. Indoor and outdoor pools were to follow as a means of containing and controlling the increasingly popular swimming movement. Bathing machines and bathing costumes helped to disguise the swimmers, but warm water, and holidays abroad have now all but emptied British waters of the swimmers to whom they belong.

Wild Swimming

Although interest in a return to nature and skinny dipping in particular is attracting interest in the wild swimming community, it is worth remembering that it was skinny dipping that got British swimmers into trouble in the first place. In the Uzbek capital, Tashkent last year, the Walrus Club (a group of eccentric bathers who would swim and dive into the canal adjacent to their club house) have had their premises and equipment destroyed by officials bringing an end to their 60 years existence. A spokesperson stated “local residents were offended by the sight of undressed winter swimmers in the water and on the canal bank.” Times change, and even countries that have until now lagged behind the times are catching up with the notion of prudery. Will the history of British swimming provide a lesson to wild swimmers today? Or will history repeat itself and get the movement into trouble? Perhaps it would be best to contend ourselves with the freedom to swim as it gradually emerges and confine skinny dipping to the privacy of the bathtub.

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