Bathing costume

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sea bathing first became popular for health reasons in the 1790s: King George III set the fashion for sea-bathing when he visited Weymouth in 1789. As seaside holidays grew in popularity, seaside bathing became more widespread, and was often seen as a restorative or ‘cure’ for a number of diseases.

Improvements in travel and increasing numbers of visitors by coach or train meant that seaside towns were able to invest in more and more sophisticated forms of entertainment, and by 1890, Weston-super-Mare boasted an alpine railway and a shooting gallery, a maze, bandstand, helter skelter, water chute and Theatre of Wonders.

Although there was a lot of fun to be had, adults would have remained fully dressed on the beach. This was not simply due to modesty – people would not have been used to wearing so few clothes, fearing they would catch cold. Those who were prepared to bathe in the sea, would be towed out in a large, covered horse-drawn cart. They would then change under cover and emerge from the back of the cart into the sea. Even so, at this time, few people knew how to actually swim, the idea was simply to take a dip in the water.

Children, both girls and boys, would have worn swimming costumes very much like the one pictured, although some boys and men bathed nude at separate beaches. Many children’s bathing costumes would have been made at home using quite a thick material which when wet, would become much heavier. Each summer, dressmaking magazines such as ‘Myra’s Journal’ would run features on clothing for the seaside, the idea being that readers could then order sewing patterns for the garments depicted.