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Saturday, 2 July 2011


Edwardian photo postcards of women in bathing costumes

“There are two kinds of bathing suits, those that are adapted for use in the water, and those that are unfit for use except on dry land. If you are going to swim, wear a water bathing suit. But if you are merely going to play on the beach and pose for your camera friends, you may safely wear the dry land variety.”
How to Swim, Annette Kellerman, 1918

In the summer of 1898 Paul Martin was wandering along the crowded Yarmouth beachfront with what looked like a box wrapped in brown paper. Every so often he’d stop, idle about then continue on, barely noticed by anyone. The box was actually a camera and he was after candid shots of the holidaymakers. What he caught on film should put to rest any notions the late Victorians were a prudish bunch. He caught dozens of couples groping in the sands, inevitably still wearing their suits and skirts but unabashed in their pursuit of flesh. The British seaside was a place where social mores were suspended. People could be themselves or, if this was what they really wanted, someone else; Still a timid bank clerk or a straitlaced domestic perhaps but let off the leash. No one cared, or if they did not too many were listening to their objections.

Go forward a few years. Victoria is dead, Edward is King and bank holidays at resorts like Brighton and Blackpool have become part of Britain’s cultural identity. In France people head to the Mediterranean. The beachfronts already have somewhat salacious reputations and many of them have partitioned areas where ladies and gentlemen may stroll without needing to encounter more unruly citizens. The postcard has taken off and some of the most popular are comic pictures of fat men and women at the seaside mouthing bald double entendres. Certain resorts like Brighton are notorious as places to conduct affairs and private detectives can make some easy money tracking errant husbands or wives. The seaside is one place where a woman may appear showing her bare upper arms or her legs below the knees. Heady stuff and no wonder there is a market for real photo postcards of young ladies in swimming costumes.

Sharp-eyed observers will note none of the women here are actually at the beach. The term ‘fashion photography’ didn’t exist in 1910 although fashion photography itself did, albeit with picture editors still using photographs as the basis for pen and ink sketches. Fashion as it was understood belonged to the privileged. Only the well off could afford the dresses and accoutrements that people like Leopold Reutlinger photographed. The rest had to do make do with cheap copies but they could probably afford a swimsuit. During the Edwardian era it was woolen, loose and covered the upper arms and just above the knees. Since women weren’t expected to swim but sit in a wooden bathing machine that washed seawater over them, you could say it was adequate. Although segregation of swimming areas had ended a few years earlier and the bathing machine was being phased out, for some men these postcards were the closest they’d get to seeing a woman in a swimsuit. Photographers were cluing on to a principle of fashion photography. The market wasn’t gender orientated. Put a young lady in a swimsuit, the women would admire the costume, the men her body and everyone could appreciate the photographer’s good work.

In particular ways these postcards already resemble the fashion photography of the 1940s and ‘50s much more than they do the era that immediately followed them. During the 1920s and ‘30s the ideal model was a creature of high and unreachable elegance, enhanced by dramatic lighting that cast parts of her face or figure in shadow and usually provided the background too. Postwar she descended earthwards, a little, and might be photographed at a suburban cocktail party, playing tennis or at an actual beach. The lighting was flatter and the settings more adventurous. You can’t trace a direct line between these postcards and the work of photographers like Richard Avedon but you could say they share elements that had been neglected in the interim. There is so much in these images that became integral to fashion photography they would have to be included in any authoritative history of the genre, which, when you think about it, is strange. Somewhere in the dim and foggy place where fashion photography was born there is a link to the shameless behaviour of the unsophisticated at the British seaside.


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