Monday, 30 November -0001

Riviera Style: Resort & Swimwear Since 1900

From the Victorian to the hi-tech and highly daring, this fun exhibition charts the evolution of seaside fashion

Written by Robin Dutt
Robin-Dutt-2015With perfect timing, naturally, this bijou but packed exhibition of swimwear modes really does make you want to jet off to the south of France – as well as, in my case, recalling the earliest holidays beside calm Southend waves or the more belligerent ones of Llandudno. Entering the space, the audio backdrop is unavoidable – when I was there, Cliff Richard was belting out Summer Holiday. Perhaps I should have waited for La Mer by Charles Trenet – rather more ‘Riviera’, shall we say.

The first few examples of swimwear are utterly charming – late Victorian and early Edwardian pieces, which look strikingly modern and perfectly suitable for a shopping trip or saunter around town today. There is something so very 1970s about them in terms of shape, pattern and colour. Ossie Clark or even Thea Porter just may have been inspired in part by their then daring simplicity.

Curated by Dr Christine Boydell of De Montfort University, this exhibition features the collections of Leicestershire County Council. The cutest children’s swimwear is set beside swimming caps and parasols, and the huge assortment of beachwear (mainly for women) ranges from one-piece to two, from ballerina swimsuits to kimono wraps, some accompanied by a parasol or sadly empty Martini glass.

There is related material, too, such as sublime black-and-white resort photographs and hypercoloured holiday posters encouraging you to visit the sea. Plus a few saucy postcards, such as the one featuring two girls with ample figures and tight flares, asking, ‘How do you like our bell-bottoms?’, and another with three sea maidens in tight garb being admonished by a policeman, who quips, ‘Now then, come out of those or I will pinch yer!’ Happily, some things never change.

And if the beach was and increasingly is the place for neo-nudity, this show reminds you just how liberating and sexy it can make you feel – beach body-ready or no. We’ve come a long way from the bathing machine, which barely dipped its wheels into the water. Imagine what the respectable paddlers of yesteryear would have thought of today’s inhibition-free topless and nude beaches. Perhaps they’d have wished for a time machine… 

Until 30 August at the Fashion and Textile Museum, Bermondsey Street, London SE1: 020-7407 8664, www.ftmlondon.org


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