“The Perfect Summer Exhibition”
A brightly coloured King and McGaw print hangs on the side of the hot pink and orange building that is London’s Fashion and Textile Museum. The illustration represents a woman standing on Calvi Beach in Corsica, the inviting face of the anticipated exhibition Riviera Style: Resort and Swimwear Since 1900.
Handed a train ticket on admission, visitors are set to embark on a journey to the seaside where one hundred years of swimwear awaits them. Split into five chronological sections, each spanning two to three decades, the exhibition explores: style evolution, fabric development and consumer needs, contextualised with the expansion of the railway and holiday market. Riviera Style aims to “illuminate past and present swimwear fashions and inspire future design directions in the industry” comments Celia Joicey, head of the museum. The exhibition provides an insight into the industry, displaying key styles from the past century that have led to swimwear as we know it today.
Entering the yellow painted corridor gives the impression of stepping off a plane into an exotic sunny land. Bold prints of smiling babes in bikinis convey a sense of holiday adventure, while “we’re all going on a summer holiday” amidst a compilation of holiday tunes echoes around the exhibition. To the right, the visitors are greeted by a line of mannequins, dressed in two-piece red and navy bathing suits made from finely woven wool. The viewers are immersed in a holiday atmosphere as they enter the exhibition’s first section: Bathing Beauties 1895-1919.
An Edwardian family, taking a walk along the promenade, model early 20th century resort wear. They wear formal suits and dresses, the only difference from their usual day wear being the lighter fabrics and colours.
By the mid-19th century, bathing had become a common recreational activity. The wearer’s modesty however, was a key concern. Men often wore one piece knee length costumes whereas women were required to completely cover their body using a bathing dress, bloomers and overdress. Their outfits were completed with necessary accessories such as stockings, headgear and boots. That would have made a heavy beach bag!
Seaside resorts expanded to accommodate the growing number of holiday makers. Swimming also became more popular, creating the need for functional bathing suits. Lighter fabrics such as knitted silks, wools and cottons replaced heavy flannels and serges, aiding the swimmer by reducing drag. Maritime reds and navies speckled beaches as darker coloured fabrics were used to reduce the transparency of wet costumes.
The exhibition highlights the push for an improvement in women’s swimwear by describing the 1907 Annette Kellerman’s swimwear scandal: the Australian professional swimmer dared to wear a tightly fitted one-piece suit which revealed her curvaceous figure. Despite her arrest for indecent exposure, she inspired many to follow her style of close-fitting costumes. The Portland Knitting Company started to use rib-stitch knit in 1913 to increase stretch in costumes, heralding a revolution in swimwear.
Around the corner a model of the Saltdean Lido, an open air swimming pool designed by Richard Jones in the thirties, stretches out from the wall. The floor is a tranquil lagoon of light blue and a shallow pool side wall curves round to enclose this trendy Art Deco scene. A cross-legged model serenely poses on a crimson diving board while another nonchalantly reaches for her martini glass. Above, a diver dressed in scarlet, hangs suspended in the air, diving down to the new era below: Cling, Bag and Stretch 1920-1939.
This resort scene reflects the period’s reduced concern for modesty. Men are shown wearing tight shorts and tank tops, whilst women model slim-fit black and navy two-piece suits. Typically, these were predominantly wool based and proved uncomfortable when wet due to the stretchy nature of the knitted fabric. The Holidays with Pay Act 1938 granted workers one week’s annual paid holiday which made going on vacation a possibility. This resulted in a rise of holiday swimming, increasing the need for practical swimwear. The ‘miracle yarn’ “Lastex”, an elastic yarn used in the 1930s, was made of a latex core wound with cotton, wool, silk or rayon threads.
It produced fabrics that offered one or two-way stretch and kept their shape even when wet. However, due to Lastex’s expense, these form flattering costumes were only accessible to the wealthier seaside-goer. A moss green tankini formed of ruched fabric, through the use of elastic thread, stands out amongst the other costumes in the lido. This tankini is an example of manufacturer Martin White’s 1937 ‘telescopic’ swimsuit, ideal for any female body shape.
Publicity images spray the walls like the salty sea air. Bright posters display tanned women in desirable seaside towns, signalling to the hard worker that a holiday is a necessity. The association between beach and pleasure is illustrated in Vogue’s glamorous black and white photographs. The black frames exude the elegance of the beach. Women’s broad smiles, as wide as their straw sun hats, promote the possibility of happiness by the sea. Posters from the railway present popular destinations printed in bold bright fonts: Cannes, Antibes and St. Tropez. To the fellow Londoner these destinations would have sounded much more appealing than the tube stops Bond Street, Bank or Bethnal Green!
Climbing up shiny metal stairs to the first floor, the viewers take a last look at the fun of the past below as they enter the wartime era: Mould and Control 1940-1959.
Despite the limited swimwear production, the Second World War undoubtedly influenced future designers, Louis Réard amongst them. In 1946 Réard invented a new type of women’s swimwear that revealed the entire mid-rift, the bikini, named after the site of a U.S. atomic test: Bikini Atoll. Nylon, developed just before the Second World War, was celebrated for its lightweight and quick drying qualities, allowing for figure-hugging costumes. With these changes swimwear began to resemble corsetry and underwear, accentuating the human figure and increasing the importance of looking attractive on the beach. This trend was heightened by the rise of Hollywood stars photographed wearing shiny satin costumes. It also coincided with the introduction of pageantry swimsuit competitions as a new form of holiday entertainment.
Reaching the first floor, a row of twenty eager “Miss Great Britain” contestants is elevated on a podium. Posing to their audience with an audacious hand-on-hip, they sport corset styled costumes and high-waisted bikini bottoms. At the centre the 1965 Morecambe winner, Diane Westbury, proudly stands in a light blue nylon jersey costume with black leafy detail creeping across the front. Unlike many other pageant goers who would have had costumes specially made, Westbury bought hers ready-made from R and W H Symington. The growing popularity of swimwear had created a niche market; resort wear collections began to appear in most top designer’s collections.
Walking on to Body Beautiful: 1960-1989, more mannequin is on show than fabric. Brightly coloured bikinis, monokinis and trikinis are splayed across the dark walls like tropical fish. By the 1980s, cheaper air-travel and package deals meant a whole body suntan was affordable and accessible. This paved the way for costumes with as little fabric as possible: plunging necklines, high-cut legs and cleavage enhancing styles made the body visible to all. The wearers could no longer hide under the fabric of their costume; they were responsible for keeping their image through exercise and diet.
Ending on Second Skin: 1990 onwards, visitors are faced with an intimidating, dark, three-quarter length racing suit: Speedo’s LZR Racer 2008. This impressive sharkskin inspired material forms, according to Speedo, “the fastest swimming costume in the world”. The Teflon coated Lycra costume broke more than 130 records in a year, forcing in 2010 a ban on all polyurethane suits. It is clear from the pieces exhibited how the industry has revolutionised competitive swimwear. One can only wonder what swimwear technology will enable the determined racer to accomplish next.
The exhibition concludes on commercial considerations. To keep up with the constant flux of travellers and holiday farers hitting the beach, resort and cruise wear is available all year round. As women do not come in standard sizes, the industry has become more adaptable with sizing and bikini bottoms are now sold separately. With body-image being an endless concern, smoothing and tummy control panels as well as padding or added support around the cleavage have become common features of swimwear; as bikini models are not the only people who like to spend time on the beach! Issues surrounding swimwear such as sun-exposure, hygiene and religious implications are still concerns and leave us curious as to what the next wave of swimwear will entail.
Visitors, when next flying to the coast with a new bikini, remember the one hundred years of bathing, swimming and sunbathing that were needed to create it.
Riviera Style provides a whirlwind summer tour of some of the greatest swimmers’, models’ and sun bathers’ costumes of the past century. Informative and enjoyable, this is the perfect summer exhibition.
The Fashion and Textile Museum
83 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3XF.
On display until 29th August 2015.
Tuesday–Sunday, 11am–6pm; Thursday until 8pm; Sunday until 5pm; closed Mondays.
£8.80 adults, £6.60 concessions, £5.50 students, inclusive of 10% donation. Under 12s are free.
Riviera Style was curated by Dr Christine Boydell, De Montfort University and organised by the Fashion and Textile Museum and Newham College. The exhibition features original source material from Leicestershire County Council, Lancashire County Council, fashion magazines, trade journals and private collections. Prints are supplied from King and McGaw, the official image partners of Riviera Style.