Riviera Style at the Fashion and Textile Museum, London

Riviera Style swimwear display seen in London museum

If there’s one exhibition the makers of the dreaded Protein World advert – ‘Are you beach body ready?’ – should see, it’s Riviera Style: Resort & Swimwear Since 1900 at the Fashion and Textile Museum, London, where it’s proven that idealised beach bodies – and holiday trends – are forever changing.

There’s no failsafe seaside look that could carry you from the 1900s to the noughties, just as no destination has consistently ruled over all the others (for one thing, Dubai and Benidorm were barely on the map in 1900, unless you fancied a quiet fishing trip).

I was treated to a press view of the exhibition, which runs from today until 30th August. The main exhibition area has been transformed into a version of the Saltdean Lido, complete with bathers in the water and a graceful mannequin diving overhead, and the side walls are lined with advertising prints promoting Cromer and New Brighton. Here’s what I discovered on a walk through history’s obsession with the stylish seaside.

Victorian and Edwardian seaside outfits with bloomers
Woven flannel and serge fabrics gave way to silks and cottons in early British swimwear.

1895-1919: Bathing Beauties

There are so many elaborate outfits in the early stages of the exhibition that I wonder how anyone dared to get sand on them. Lace caps, sailor suits and red woollen bathing suits definitely stand out. Curator Dr. Christine Boydell said “it was all about submerging yourself in the water to take ‘the cure'”, with seawater seen as medicinal.

Serge bloomers, stockings and sleeved bathing dresses meant there wasn’t much flesh on show at the beach, and men wore briefs over the top of stockingettes, which ran the risk of turning translucent in the water. Those who couldn’t afford proper swimwear could paddle in the shallows.

Most of the 200 items featured in Riviera Style come from the Leicestershire County Council Museum Service, due to the role local lingerie company Symington (inventors of the Liberty bodice) played in swimwear design.

Anchor logo on sailor suit from Edwardian era
Nauticalia has always been fashionable – here’s an outfit for a young boy.

In context…

  • This was a boom time for British piers at the seaside – Mumbles Pier opened in 1898, Brighton Marine Palace & Pier in 1899 and both Southwold and Shanklin in 1900.
  • Women swam in the Olympics for the first time in 1912 (held in Stockholm).
Stylish luxury clothing for 1930s women
Jumpsuits, kimonos and pyjamas make an appearance.

1920-39: Cling, Bag, Stretch

1920s and 30s swimwear was a lot more relaxed, sometimes looking unisex, and technology introduced a ‘miracle thread’ called lastex, which was an expensive but useful alternative to ribbed wool. Bathing regulations gradually became more liberal; as the exhibition programme mentioned, ‘Up until the 1930s men were required by law to cover their torsos’.

Lidos, or outdoor swimming pools, were big news in the 30s, often designed with an Art Deco theme – Tinside, in Plymouth, is one of the best examples. In the corner of the museum’s lido tribute is a mannequin in a Chanel-esque monochrome look accessorised with pearls; Coco Chanel also made tanned skin fashionable for the first time in the 20s. Previously, anyone with a tan would have been a manual labourer working outdoors.

Some of my favourite exhibits are the beach pyjamas from the 30s, with the glamour of a Poirot episode (Christine Redfern’s beach ensemble from the 2001 adaptation of Evil Under the Sun springs to mind). I also love the green and white polka dot ‘telescopic’ swimsuit, with elastic to create a better fit.

Poolside figures in vintage men's bathing suits
Fabrics with more stretch and versatility made it easier to fit costumes to the body.

In context…

  • The British Pathe blog sums up the 20s and 30s appeal of beach pyjama dressing, which has come back into fashion in recent years.
  • In 1930 Coco Chanel designed a villa on the French Riviera, called La Pausa. It was profiled by American Vogue magazine in 1938 and attracted guests such as Picasso and Dalí.
Bikinis with high waists introduced to beach fashion
Much less modesty here – beauty pageants were a craze that swept the seaside resorts.

1940-59: Mould and Control

Part of the upper display is based on a Morecambe Beach beauty contest, with mannequins given contestant numbers, beside an authentic pageant sash from 1953. Swimwear for women was much flirtier, with ruching and floral prints drawing attention to curves.

Manufacturers brought corset-style engineering to beachwear, with contouring and boning; the museum placed a corset in their beauty contest line-up, so viewers can see the likeness. As Dr. Cordell explained, though the bikini was invented in 1946, it didn’t immediately catch on, and “two-pieces had modesty skirts, well over the belly button.”

Also on display are souvenir scarves from around Europe, and gorgeous sun dresses, including one worn by a woman on her 1940s honeymoon in Torquay. Things get skimpier in menswear, with leopard print briefs and laced trunks from the 50s.

Honeymoon wardrobe from the 40s with summer looks
Prints became intricate and adventurous.

In context…

  • World War Two saw people taking holidays at home (the Imperial War Museum has a photo example) and, until June 1940, Jersey was advertised as ‘the ideal wartime holiday resort’, as ‘our island is far removed from the theatre of war’. Sadly it was occupied by the Germans between July 1940 and May 1945.
  • Seaside History studied British holiday trends between the 50s and the early noughties, covering domestic and overseas spending. In the 1950s you might have taken the train and stayed with relatives, but by the 80s you’d probably drive to rented accommodation or a hotel.
Swim hats and full skirted dresses on display
The brighter and zanier, the better, according to 60s and 70s dress codes.

1960-1989: The Body Beautiful

The 60s, 70s and 80s pieces seen here are quite bold, with cut-outs, crazy patterns and unusual fabrics for women such as terry towelling, suede and PVC – not necessarily ready for sand or salt water. Trunks and briefs shrink further for men.

By the 60s, those with enough disposable income could swap a fortnight in Cromer for a fortnight in Corfu, and designers like Pucci led the way in making fashion-forward beachwear in candy colours and psychedelic patterns. If you paid Pucci prices you were probably going on a glamorous fly-cruise rather than a trip to the pier with some fish and chips. In Leicestershire, Symington introduced a line of swimming costumes named after exotic locations like Florida.

Fast forward to the 80s – decade of leotards, perms and Flashdance – and high leg swimsuits were in vogue for women, whilst men embraced all things tight and neon. As the exhibition programme explains, there was a ‘general reduction in fabric used’ at the time, so wearers ‘had to exercise and diet to achieve the ideal’.

Men's swimming trunks on muscular mannequins
The Victorians would not have approved… however, they haven’t seen the mankini down the corridor.

In context…

  • Though introduced in the 60s, it wasn’t until the 70s that all-inclusive packages became reasonably affordable. For people staying in Britain at the time, camping and caravanning continued to feature, and Butlins still drew in the crowds. However, according to the ONS, booking figures for overseas package holidays doubled during the 1980s, with Spain proving popular.
  • Jackie Onassis, Aristotle Onassis and Grace Kelly put Mykonos on the map; meanwhile, the James Bond films kicked off in 1962 with No, set in Jamaica, where Ursula Andress emerged from the sea in a white bikini. Her character, Honey Ryder, was ‘a local shell diver’.
Modern swim gear including tan-through fabric and burkini
Look out for the homage to Daniel Craig’s blue trunks (bottom row, third from left) and the Stella McCartney Team GB kit (bottom row, far right).

1990 Onwards: Second Skin

The last part of the exhibition features headline grabbers such as the mankini made famous in Borat, the burkini designed for Muslim sportswomen, and the athletic LZR Racer suit by Speedo that was banned as a result of its effectiveness.

There are also some recognisable everyday styles – board shorts by Quiksilver, a swimsuit with a control panel by Next, and trunks by Orlebar Brown printed with a 1960s resort photo. It’s all a long way from woollen bathing suits and bloomers, especially as our holidays can now involve a trip to Australia or a private beach on the Red Sea.

Opposite this part of the exhibition you can see the Nautical Chic area, exploring the history of the nautical fashion trend, which ties into a new book by Amber Jane Butchart. It’s a worthwhile side note to Riviera Style.

Anna Sui bikini with daisy print in Fashion and Textiles Museum
Later designs have been driven by the surfing scene and the sports industry.

In context…

  • Tired old Margate, the former darling of the British seaside, has now got its groove back with the opening of the Turner Gallery, a slew of vintage shops and independent restaurants, and cute B&Bs.
  • Powerful celebrities like Rihanna, Beyoncé and the Kardashians can influence holiday booking trends, but so can the cast of TOWIE. Popular choices include Dubai, Thailand and – in the case of TOWIE – Marbella, affectionately known as Marbs, where Bobby Norris and Harry Derbidge were spotted in some very skimpy swimwear (look away if you’re easily offended) to avoid tan lines.
Eclectic patterned vintage jackets and bikinis in London museum
If you like to get noticed when you hit the Riviera, here’s some inspiration from the 70s.

Evidently, being ‘beach body ready’ meant something quite different in 1900 than it did a century later, and the kind of beach breaks people took have evolved just as much. If you’re interested in how our holiday habits have evolved, this exhibition is a brilliant cultural primer, backed by an impressive archive, so don’t miss out.

Visiting Notes: The Fashion and Textile Museum can be found at 83 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3XF. It’s within walking distance of London Bridge Station.

Riviera Style runs until 30th August 2015. Tickets cost £8.80 (adults), £6.60 (concessions) or £5.50 (students) and there’s free entry for the under 12s. The museum is open from 11am-6pm Tuesday-Saturday (plus late night opening until 8pm on Thursday), and 11am-5pm on Sunday. Entry is 45 minutes before closing, and the museum is closed on Monday.