“All I want to put on today is a pair of trousers, a fleece, and a pair of deck shoes. I don’t want to pop on some bloody fancy dress,” moans Joyce Bowler, nearly in tears at the prospect of spending yet another day gasping for breath in a heavily boned Victorian corset.
But she’s stuck: as the mother of the modern-day British family inhabiting PBS’s The 1900 House, she’s agreed to spend three months trussed up in corset, corset cover, drawers, underskirt, petticoat, camisole, floor-sweeping skirt, and to top it all off, one of those neck-choking blouses known as a “waist.” In this getup she’s expected to sweep and mop, baste and bake, under the gaze of PBS’s cameras, The 1900 House being Channel 13’s tasteful contribution to the current obsession with reality television. (Instead of eating rats or capturing immunity idols, the Bowler family has to contend with chamber pots and cold baths.)
Still, somehow she can bear it all—the balky coal stove, the bottomless heap of laundry—all but the tight-lacing. After Bowler has spent five weeks ensconced in this iron maiden, a doctor confirms what she has suspected: Her respiratory capacity is reduced more than 25 percent when she’s wearing her stays. “I hate it! I hate the bloody thing!” she despairs. “But I can’t not wear it or the clothes won’t fit!”
Just when she seems to be at the end of her sartorial rope, emancipation arrives in the shape of a silly-looking, sailor-collared, turn-of-the-century wool bathing suit, so voluminous it is really more of a knee-length dress, which offers at least temporary respite from the bloody corset. (The 1908 Sears, Roebuck catalog describes a similar model, priced at $3.19, as being made of “fine quality mohair and . . . trimmed around a Dutch neck, down opening at left side of front, on short puffed sleeves and skirt with fancy braid. Bloomers are attached at the waist. This material sheds water well and does not cling to the figure.”
Horrible as this garment sounds (actually it’s even worse than it sounds, since it was meant to be worn—in the water—with a hat, stockings, and lace-up slippers), Joyce positively crows as she waddles down the staircase of the 1900 house, finally corsetless, in just such an outfit: “I feel incredibly light! It’s taken years off me! . . . I can’t believe they were so close to freedom and put themselves all back in the other stuff.”
The bathing dress may have represented the apogee of freedom for Victorian ladies, but its legacy has proved a nerve-racking trial for the 20th-century woman. No sooner had she nibbled the fruits of freedom than scolds began wagging their fingers. In 1913, a critic surveyed the beach scene with horror: “Young men in skin-tight, sleeveless, and neckless bathing garments, about a yard in length, and bare-armed girls with skirts and bloomers above the knee, loll together in a sort of abandon. . . . Two lie side by side, toasting each other to the popular russet tint. . . . In wilder moods they cover each other with sand which sculptures every outline of their bodies. . . . ”
By the mid 1920s, Vogue was telling its readers that “the newest thing for the sea is a jersey bathing suit as near a maillot as the unwritten law will permit.” But alas, Vogue too had warnings to offer: “Whether to swim at all is a consideration, for swimming has a way of increasing the girth in an amazingly short time.” Ten years later the magazine, in unconscious refutation of that 1908 Sears catalog, cites approvingly a suit made of “the new jersey [that] adheres to you like a new and handsome skin, and the couturiers are cutting all the bathing suits completely in the cross, which goes a long way towards making them cling to you like mad.” Even in wartime, vanity wasn’t allowed a day off: In 1942, British Vogue urged the cultivation of a tan in the least likely circumstances: “With the tension of wartime living and the fatigue of wartime work . . . make the most of every opportunity to bask in the sun.” (Not on Britain’s beaches, presumably—they were mined for the duration of the war.)
The postwar years brought with them unprecedentedly comfortable clothes—sunsuits, sandals, shorts, and, in 1946, the bikini. This abbreviated two-piece, named for an atoll where the atomic bomb was tested, elicited a range of contradictory responses from women: For some it was sexy and liberating, a final nail in the Victorian coffin, but for others the triumph of the skimpy suit brought with it a level of public scrutiny that could ruin the nicest day at the beach.
Things of course are much worse now. For every confident happy body reposing on the sand, there are millions who have never quite recovered from the harsh reality of the department store fitting room, the ruthlessness of high-cut legs, precarious straps, the propensity of so many suits to ride up in back during even a short stroll to the concession stand, or, worst of all, their ability to vanish entirely when confronted with a particularly enthusiastic wave. And of course, one is supposed to be far, far thinner than even the mannequins who modeled those first bikinis half a century ago: If you have any doubt of the reign of terror we’re living under, rent a 40-year-old beach party movie—Annette Funicello and her friends are positively chunky by today’s standards.
Bowler’s floppy, soggy serge bathing suit may have weighed a ton and soaked up water like a sponge, but in some respects a Victorian bathing costume had its advantages. Though no one in her right mind would want to go back to a wool swim dress, at least the woman of 1900 wasn’t plagued with concerns about jiggly thighs, cellulite, back fat, errant follicles, the quality, size, and shape of her navel (no kidding: The May issue of Allure had a symposium on this subject), and she certainly didn’t have to give a thought to how her thong-bifurcated buttocks looked in the merciless light of an August afternoon.