This 4th of July, many families will flock to the seaside for a fun-filled day of sandcastles, sunbathing and surfing. Those of us who live near the ocean may struggle to separate 4th of July celebrations from the beach, but the truth is that seaside vacations didn’t become a cultural phenomenon in the English-speaking world until the early 1800s. What would it be like, you might wonder, to visit the beach in the 19th century? Read on to find out what you might wear for your Victorian 4th of July by the sea–and where you can buy affordable antique clothing ensembles.
In the early 1800s, prominent British doctors began to proscribe sea water as a virtual cure-all; to follow the doctors’ orders, the upper-classes abandoned their usual holiday homes at bath and spa towns in favor of small coastal villages like Brighton, Ramsgate and Scarborough. Seaside clothing remained as constrained as the upper classes’ manners. But soon, the railroads offered the middle-classes the chance to visit the sea, creating a diverse environment. Class distinctions couldn’t stand up to the holiday atmosphere that everyone shared, and soon the concept of seaside fun spread to America as well. Slowly, swimwear would change from the constricting Victorian styles to the more forgiving Edwardian styles.
In the mid-Victorian era, a woman would wear a dress like this antique ensemble available from Miss Lisa 1867. Wide hoop skirts, long sleeves, delicate fabrics and unhealthily-tight corsets were hallmarks of the period, as modesty and elegance ruled the prim-and-proper culture–even in swimwear. In fact, modesty was such a driving force at the beach that women used “bathing machines,” or tents on platforms that could be rolled out to the shoreline, allowing women to don their swimwear and dive into the surf in complete privacy.
Today, we’d call the Georgian and Victorian “bathing machines” overkill, as a 19th-century woman’s swim attire was so constricted, she could hardly swim: together, a long dress made of heavy flannel and long, heavy bloomers covered virtually every inch of her skin.
But by the turn of the 20th century, swimwear styles had begun to change. Puffy cap sleeves appeared, along with curtailed ribbon-trimmed bloomers that (gasp!) allowed the ankles to peek through. This antique bathing costume available from Frocks n’ Frills Vintage is missing the lace-up slippers Edwardian women wore, but it showcases the high neckline and short sleeves that preserved modesty while providing more ease of movement.
Of course, if your 4th of July festivities didn’t include sea-bathing but merely walking along sea cliffs, you might wear something like this antique dress from Revival House during the Victorian period.
Whether your 4th of July takes you to the seaside or no further than your backyard, we at Victorian Homes wish you all a happy Independence Day.
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by Elaine K. Phillips