Those magnificent belles in their bathing machines

Those magnificent belles in their bathing machines

THE ITSY BITSY TEENIE WEENIE yellow polka dot bikini first came to the attention of the bubble-gum generation of the early 60s via teenage heart-throb Bobby Darin, although female athletes and acrobats wearing ‘le minimum’ were all the rage in Ancient Rome.

Witness the mosaic of girls uncovered at the Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, from 300 AD.

For what goes round wraps round of course and nowhere more so than in covering the differences between the sexes when taking a public plunge.  Our modern use of the word ‘bikini’ dates from 1st July, 1946 and the atom bomb test on the tiny atoll of that name in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific.

Barely five days after an event that shook the world there came a second when the French unveiled a tiny two-piece swim-suit in Paris named “le bikini” because, said engineer Louis Réard, its designer, it was ‘small and devastating’.


Micheline Bernardini

No ‘respectable mannequin’ could be found to wear it for its unveiling until Micheline Bernardini, a 19-year-old nude dancer from the Casino de Paris was persuaded to ease herself into the breach – and history.

The two-piece swimsuit she modelled for the world’s media had a g-string back and was made of 30 square inches (194 cm2) of cloth. Subsequently Mlle Bernardini received over 50,000 fan letters, several of them from women.

Wet, wet, wet

Bathing of any sort in the years following those rampant Romans was widely looked upon as something curative rather than pleasurable or even necessary.

This had long been an age when most people washed their hands and faces daily, but few of them, Elizabeth I included, bathed more than once or twice a year because it was considered injurious to health. Society was long used to the odours  of others and did what it could to smile and bear it.

Doctors and physicians believed the body’s health to be governed by ‘humours’. These humours, brought about by vapours inhaled or absorbed by the body, were four in number and perfectly in balance with each other when the person was healthy.  The middle and upper classes therefore came to ‘take the waters’ at spas, such as Bath or Cheltenham, where they either immersed themselves in it or drank it: most times, both.

In 1687, the extraordinary and feisty lady traveller, Celia Fiennes, a West Country lass and an ancestor of today’s Sir Ranulph Fiennes, made a note of the public bathing at Bath, describing the costumes of that era worn by wealthier people.

Canvas opinion

“The Ladyes go into the bath with Garments made of a fine yellow canvas, which is stiff and made large with great sleeves like a parson’s gown; the water fills it up so that it is borne off that your shape is not seen, it does not cling close as other linning, which Lookes sadly in the poorer sort that go in their own linning. The Gentlemen have drawers and wastcoates of the same sort of canvas, this is the best linning, for the bath water will Change any other yellow”.

Before the 18th century shuddered to its grimy halt, visiting the seaside for a ‘dip’ in the briny (they invented the use of the word in this sense) became increasingly fashionable with the upper classes and sea bathing, especially for gentlemen at August Spring Tide was thought to have an especially prophylactic effect.

This is from the diary of Fanny Burney, recording an amusing scene when George III took his first trip to Weymouth to take the plunge – for reasons best known to himself.

“Nor is this all. Think but of the surprise of His Majesty when, the first time of his bathing, he had no sooner popped his royal head under water than a band of music, concealed in a neighbouring machine, struck up “God save great George our King”.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen

So sea bathing was one thing but to strip off and frolic in the foam for fun was something that would have to be slipped in under the Victorian radar, little by little.   But first, thankfully, before Victoria poured her cold water on a generation, there was Jane Austen.

Jane loved the seaside, especially Devon’s seaside (well most of it, because she did write that ”the subscription library at Dawlish is pitiful and wretched”) was one of those people of fashion during the Regency who enjoyed taking the plunge – away from prying eyes of course and suitably screened from the curious by a professional ‘dipper’ and a bathing machine.

But she was also aware that the seaside was becoming a business and seaside ‘resorts’ – places where the locals went out of their way to attract and cater for the well-to-do were growing in number. They began to spring up all around the coast, particularly in the West Country and she was distressed at the changes that were taking place at so many of its small coastal communities.

Her increasing anxiety of these places losing their innocence manifests itself in her unfinished novel, Sanditon, which is a pseudonym for Sidmouth; here she puts these words into the mouth of one of her characters, although they almost certainly echo her own feelings on the subject:

“Every five years one hears of some new place or other starting up by the sea and growing the fashion. How they can half of them be filled is the wonder! Where people can be found with money or time to go to them. Bad things for a county, sure to raise the price of provisions and make the poor good for nothing!”

The answer to that particular maiden’s prayer of course would be a few more years in arriving, in the form of the railways. Meantime, all along the coast, blacksmiths were busy converting farm carts and wheeling them out as bathing machines and fishermen’s wives were re-inventing themselves as ‘dippers’.

Martha Gunn

Martha Gunn, most renowned of Georgian dippers

‘Dippers’ were the denizen guides whose services came with the rental of the machines, their job being to escort bathers into and out of the water. Lady Nelson, for instance, disliked bathing at Sidmouth – where the bathing machines were that much closer to the curious strolling along what would one day become a promenade – and took her regular ‘dips’ at Exmouth instead.

For medically prescribed dips the dipper ensured that their charges received three total immersions, at which the cry was “Enough!” Anyone who continued to wallow in the briny was deemed to be frolicking – and it was thus that sea bathing as an enjoyable pastime came into being.

Sea dipping faded and disappeared by the mid-1850s but as the railways delivered more and more people to the Victorian seaside, the bathing machines saw a new lease of life in the 1890s by being pulled further up the beach,

to be re-painted and pensioned-off as changing rooms, from whence men and women took the plunge by tippy-toeing over the pebbles, not in yellow canvas coveralls, but in fashionable new, brightly coloured ‘swimming costumes’.

“Too strong for Exmouth”

But first this, from a long, somewhat steamy letter to the editor of The Illustrated Times on 4th October, 1855 complaining of “the monstrous sights” that met his gaze as he took a casual stroll along Exmouth’s sea front (just happening to pass by the area where the women’s bathing machines were lined up along the water’s edge).

“These women, who wait upon the ladies’ bathing machines in Exmouth have chosen to assume a costume so bold and repulsive that it is impossible to describe it. I make the attempt. (I was approached by) a form attired in coarse trousers with something on its head like a cowl, I concluded that it was some mad woman who had put on her husband’s clothes by mistake. This may be all proper at the Crystal Palace but, sir; it is too strong for Exmouth!”

Modern times

For the next one hundred years or so bathing costumes – for men as well as women – continued to cover most of what distinguished the sexes from each other.

Women wore bathing dresses over bloomers, popularised by the American women’s rights advocate. Amelia Bloomer: these were made from flannel or wool and left everything to the imagination. Gentlemen on the other hand wore one-piece woollen costumes designed to cover elbows and knees but tended to cling to everything elsewhere when wet.

Arrested for indecency on a public beach in 1907 was one Annette Kellerman, a writer, actress and Channel swimmer, for wearing the onesie swim-suit she had designed for herself. Her crime ushered in a new era, pushing back the frontiers of what was decent  and eventually what was barely half-decent on the sea shore.

As leisure time became available across the whole of society, splashing about in the water became ever more popular and a whole new aspect of the fashion industry sprang up to cater for those who dared embrace the new.

Old-time Devonians must have watched open-mouthed as swimming costumes and swim-suits so-called, changed size and shape and increasing areas of neck, chest, bosom, arm, middle, bottom and leg were exposed.

At which point, with g-strings and thongs, mono-kinis and the inevitable man-kini best left for others to ponder, the whole business of what and what not to reveal on a beach seems to be reaching full circle again, save for those who choose to swim and sunbathe in a state of nature.

NudebathersFor those so inclined, there are four naturist beaches in Devon, mostly but not all, off the beaten track – where naturists are free to swim and bathe unconcerned at or by the vagaries of fashion.  These are at Weston Mouth (twixt Seaton and Sidmouth), Budleigh Salterton, (that’s the western end) Slapton Sands (ditto) and last but not least, in North Devon at Wild Pear beach – and no, we didn’t make that last one up.


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This article was written by
John Fisher

Writer, author, script and sketch-writer, cartoonist, public speaker, Visitor Engagement Volunteer (National Trust) and would-be ukelele virtuoso.