Fashion, History

Sea Bathing in the Victorian Era

…it is, unquestionable that bathing in the open sea is, in itself, a powerful restorative agency, which many persons may employ with very great advantage.

Scientific American Volume 49 Number 07 (August 1883); Page 104; Sea Bathing

It was this belief in the sea’s ‘powerful restorative agency’ that resulted in the increased popularity of sea bathing throughout the Victorian era. People flocked to the beach to partake in the benefits of bathing as it was considered “absolutely essential to enable the skin to perform its important bodily functions…” Of all types of bathing, sea bathing was considered the best.

…but sea bathing excels all other modes of ablution in that it has a strong tonic effect on the system, and is combined with fresh air and thorough though not exhaustive muscular exercise.

The Port Augusta Dispatch, Newcastle and Flinders Chronicle (SA : 1885 – 1916); 2 November 1885; Page 2; Bathing

A visit to the beach in the Victorian era was vastly different compared to a visit to the beach today. Today, men and women congregate on the beach at the same time, wearing as much or as little clothing as they like. In the Victorian era, there were stricter societal conditions. Men and women had segregated bathing times and, occasionally, separate beaches. These were put in place as it was important they were not seen in public in their bathing costumes. To help with modesty, bathing machines were often used.

The bathing machine was invented in the 18th Century and consisted of a small wooden hut on wheels that provided privacy for people while getting changed. A person would enter the hut at one end, change into their bathing costume, and then, when ready, would be wheeled down into the water where they could exit facing the sea.

A Bathing Machine

Bathing in Australian waters came with its own set of challenges (namely sharks) and, in 1885, Mr Greenfield of Sydney solved the problem by inventing an Australian bathing machine. Much like the aforementioned bathing machines, Mr Greenfield’s invention was also fitted with a portable gated enclosure which was lowered into the water and enabled the person to bathe safely within its confines. The following image was printed in the Illustrated Sydney News several years later and shows Mr Greenfield’s machine in use at Coogee Beach in New South Wales.

Women’s bathing costumes were also a matter of importance, and in the 1880s and 1890s were more akin to dresses. Some were in fact labelled ‘bathing dresses’ and consisted of shorter length pants covered with a long tunic or blouse. Buttons, trimmings and ruches added decoration to the costume while the fabric used was often quite heavy (such as flannel or serge) so that it would not float on the water or cling to the woman’s figure.

Bathing costumes circa 1886.

The above bathing etiquette requirements were not just moral guidelines – they also became laws. The Western Australian Government’s Municipal Institutions Act 1895, gave local councils the ability to pass by-laws with respect to bathing. Such by-laws included regulating or prohibiting bathing in various bodies of water, the option to set apart certain areas for use by a particular sex, regulating the hours in which people can bathe, requirements as to clothing being worn, and authorising the erection of bathing houses or machines.

As is often the case when something reaches heightened popularity, guidelines from various sources were printed in the papers so that readers could enjoy sea bathing “with benefit to health rather than injury.” The following set were printed in The Cumberland Free Press (Parramatta, NSW) in 1895 and while many people might be familiar with rule number two, the majority are rather archaic.

  1. Never bathe when heated, nor when feeling chilly.
  2. Never bathe within two hours after a meal, but, on the other hand, do not enter the water when exhausted or hungry.
  3. An early bathe may be taken by those who are strong and healthy before breakfast, but it is as well to have had a biscuit and a drink of warm milk before going out.
  4. Those who are young or delicate should bathe two or three hours after a meal in the forenoon, when the sun is hot.
  5. Never prolong the bath after the first symptom of chilliness has appeared.
  6. Those who are able to swim can stay in the water much longer than others, and active games in the water should be encouraged.
  7. On leaving the water dry and dress quickly.
  8. Those who are subject to palpitation, giddiness, fainting fits, or are not in very good health in any other way, ought to consult a doctor before deciding to go in for sea bathing.
  9. After the bath a little light refreshment, such as a biscuit and a small glass of milk and water, or a beaten-up egg, with a teaspoonful of brandy in it, is very good.
  10. It is not wise to sit down on the beach after bathing; a short, brisk walk is desirable.

With the end of the Victorian era came the eventual end of segregated bathing, bathing machines and longer, dress-like bathing costumes. While initially the start of the 20th Century saw the continuation of the longer length bathing costumes, within the space of 25 years much had changed. Costumes gradually became fitted, shorter and closely resembled the full length costumes of today.

25 years ago and today (1926).
Evolution of the bathing costumes.
Examples of bathing costumes circa 1926.



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