Seaside and Walking Dress, 1809-1820


History of Costume I 1800-1899

In stock

  • Disc Satisfaction Guaranteed
  • Disc No Hassle Refunds (see Shipping and returns)
  • Disc Secure Payments
  • Stripe
  • Visa Card
  • MasterCard
  • American Express
  • Discover Card
  • PayPal
  • Apple Pay


When, now, the embarrassment of choice between one ‘sun bleached shore by an indigo sea’ and ‘golden beaches on 2 oceans’ can be had for a few pounds down and the rest while your tan fades, and the feeling of inferiority in confessing that your holiday will be spent at Yarmouth instead of Majorca is so usual, it is difficult to realise that the seaside habit, for all and sundry, is only a little over 150 years old. It seems to be rooted in our behaviour as much as Christmas pudding or bacon and eggs, but only the well-to-do went near the seaside for pleasure until the first decade of the 19th century. Originally, our watering places were for the actual imbibing of water, as at the inland spas, and were medically recommended to cure a strange assortment of ills. As an emetic to the overeater of the 18th century it was probably a relief to the stomach, but the benefits of the sea air and immersion in the water were not widely accepted until quite some time after the founding of the first resorts. Resort is a good operative word for the condition in which the visitors came to these ‘spaws’ (as they were written and pronounced) and for the treatment they endured to relieve themselves of their ailments. Some connection must have been noticed between the healthy, hardy looks of the local population – mere fisherfolk – and their environment, and the killjoy medical men soon had their prey dipping in an icy sea at six o’clock in the morning. The effect, of course, was miraculous, except for those who died from shock, but the majority obviously derived such benefit that the spaws and their rigours became a ‘must’ for those able to travel and afford the time and money for a few days, or weeks, at the sea. The dissolute soon furthered the fortunes of the quack in that, finding these places of enforced health so dreary, they soon succeeded with great ingenuity in making them as entertaining as the town and, in one glorious vicious circle, removed the causes of a great many ailments to the seat of the cure. The Throne set the seal on the patronage of several watering places for their medical value and the towns’ Fathers were quick to use this fine piece of advertisement. It was noted that George III had greatly benefitted from his dips at Weymouth, when all the residents turned out to observe and the Town Band accompanied him and his bathers into the water and struck up the National Anthem as the august body submerged. It was, of course, the Prince Regent who made Brighton a place of rendezvous and relaxation to counteract the severity of the water cure. Scarborough, as an original spa with only a coincidence of being near the sea, had already developed into a considerable town with Assembly Rooms, Bandstand and a Theatre and was, thereafter, a pattern for all other resorts, as a place for a holiday as well as a cure to which all the gentry of the north congregated. All these places must have been deadly boring for the amusement-loving society and very quickly Brighton provided metropolitan pleasures in a bracing atmosphere at a comparatively short distance from town. With racing on the lovely downs, prize fighting (illegally) not far away and gambling in the Assembly Rooms, with the opportunity to see all the famous and notorious figures who surrounded the Prince Regent, Brighton developed an air of gaiety and glamour that it has held to this day. The clergy thundered malediction on the social life of its visitors, with very good reason one may think, but its popularity continued and, even when the Court of the young married Queen ceased to move regularly down to Sussex, in quiet disapproval of its reputation, the masses, aided by the new, easy railway transport, moved in and added yet another facet to its attractions. Only the rich could benefit from the water or the place, as the poor had no fixed holidays and in these early years of the century the cost of transport would have been exorbitant, so there must have been only a few places that were large and well attended until the advent of the railways. Anne Elliott, in Persuasion, stayed at one, of only two, inns at Lyme where the bustle of a carriage departing brought her whole party to the windows, that being their only distraction in one day! One bathed decently, well attended, from a canopied machine for a matter of a few moments only, at the sadistic hour of six a.m., until a few rebels found that the sea was a good deal warmer later in the morning and that, for the rest of the day, there were meeting places for gossip and chocolate and, for the respectable, walking. The current refusal to use the legs except for pressing on an accelerator must be the direct result of the puritanical British cult for taking long walks. A special costume (no different, that one can see, from any other) was labelled ‘for Walking’, and, from many contemporary references, another guilt was added to the burden of any unwilling exercise-shirker. The strong breezes and damp sand had little effect on the current fashions and, yet, no real costume for entering the water had been invented. A huge tent-like cape was all that was necessary, for, except at Brighton, the bathing was done in decent privacy. In that resort of the dissipated the bathing machines had no awnings and it was possible for the interested to see the floundering forms, male and female, at the water’s edge with the aid of a spying glass, so fashionable at the time. One quibble the local critics had against the visitors was that they appeared to be there to be seen rather than to see; which considering that the advent of the fashionable world added so much to the prosperity of the town seems a little ungrateful. The Steine at Brighton must have been every bit as stylish as the Mall or St. James’s, and in addition to the great hampers of clothes transported to the coast by coach or curricle, little shops sprang up to cater further for the display of fashions. Our Plate illustrates the steady evolution of clothes through the early years of the century from the bouncing belle of 1809, who might have been seen admiring the wonders of the Regent’s exotic eastern palace – the Pavilion. Her decadent classical dress is covered by that long-lasting favourite, the tunic, much elaborated which the fresh breezes from the sea curl round her in attractive revealing abandon. Her head is still covered by the turban, a fashion that started with the interest in the eastern treasures brought to light in the first few years of the century and accentuated by the books of travel and pictures of exotic lands, so popular at the time. As our eye moves over the group we see how the silhouette has changed in ten years. The swing against the cold pure lines of classicism had gathered momentum in all the arts; painting was full of movement and colour, buildings were crenellated and gabled, while literature fed the imagination with ghostly legends of the middle ages. France, the ideal-worshipper without an aim, bewilderedly searched for an age of glory to copy other than her late Empire or the glories of the Bourbon court and settled for a repetition of the Valois: puffs and slashings in sleeves and skirts, pinched-in high waists to emphasize wider shoulders, and high round collars and curving brims to bonnets soon made their appearance in the fashionable world and were copied even in the English modes. Skirts, shortened to ankle length, had widened hems banded with cords and puffs to hold them away from the limbs, in a triangular shape from a smaller waist, while a pad under the back fullness made the skirt stand out at the right angle at the back. Sleeves were long and gathered into wider shoulders, with puffs or rolls that could be gathered at intervals right down the arm. Collars widened to yokes which later, with the sleeves released from the retaining bands, evolved into the stuffed doll shape of the late 1820’s. Hair was then raised on the head in knots and rolls which necessitated the crowns of bonnets being raised accordingly. By 1820 the brims were arched round the face with the taller crown sitting on the back of the head. Men followed the new puffed and rounded silhouette. Coat collars, rounded and rolling, arched away from the back of the neck, the shoulder widened, and gathered sleeves accentuated the tighter longer waist and puffed chest. The greatest change was the trend away from breeches to pantaloons, or trousers – those tight short pants which the character in the Commedia del Arte, or our Harlequinade, had worn for generations. Breeches had gradually lengthened, to the calf and then to ankle length where, even in 1802, they were held under the foot by a string, with a short opening at the seam side for easing over the foot. Wellington had introduced pantaloons for his soldiers by 1806 but there was great opposition to general adoption for another ten years. When worn without strings and over shoes the costume was called ‘careless’, in the same way as our moderns use the term ‘casual’. The English, apparently, were the first to strap the lengthened trouser-leg over boots – another offence to French taste that in 1815 called forth some caustic satire, but within a year or two the whim had become the fashion for men, for many a year to come. These lengthened pantaloons were a boon to the fashionable man, giving his lower limbs a solid foundation less cumbersome than the heavy boot and suited to all occasions other than horse-riding, and this, with the variations of shape such as peg-top, drain-pipe or Oxford bags, has been the reason for their endurance from about 1810 to this day.

Additional information

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm