Regency Swimwear

We have previously written about the very popular invention of the Georgian bathing machines, so it’s time to take a look at what people wore to take a dip in the sea. It was in the Regency era that swimwear became really popular and very much a fashion item with the newspapers of the day advising potential bathers of what they ought to be wearing to be à la mode.

Women swimming in the sea at Brighton. Coloured etching by W. Heath. Wellcome Library
Women swimming in the sea at Brighton. Coloured etching by W. Heath. Wellcome Library

Clearly there was an issue with women sharing bathing wear and so a Mrs Bell of 26, Charlotte Street, Bloomsbury came up with new invention in 1814 by creating what she called the ‘Ladies Bathing Preserver’. Its aim was:

To relieve Ladies from the nauseous idea of wearing the bathing coverings furnished by the women at the sea-side, from which dangerous permanent illnesses have arisen, in consequence of their being worn by ALL KINDS of persons, however they be afflicted. Mrs Bell’s bathing preserver is made quite in a novel manner, to which is attached a cap, to be removed at pleasure, made of a delicate oil silk, the keep the head dry. The preserver is made of such light materials, that a lady may carry it in a tasteful oiled silk bag of the same size as an ordinary lady’s ridicule.

In her advert she told potential buyers that she also:

…sold her newly invented Circassian corset, bathing and sea-side walking dresses, which enable ladies to dress and undress themselves in three minutes, without any assistance, and prevents, so much recommended by physicians, the change of taking cold by too long delay in dressing.

The Circassian corset claim might have been a good marketing strategy because this type of corset had certainly been invented by the turn of the century, if not slightly earlier, so by the time Mrs Bell was advertising it, it wasn’t new!

The Circassian Corset is the only one which displays, without indelicacy, the shape of the bosom to the greatest possible advantage; gives a width to the chest which is equally conducive to health and elegance of appearance.

Circassian Ladies Corset and Seaside Bathing Dress, Fashion Plate from La Belle Assemblée, or Bell's Court and Fashionable Magazine. SPARC Digital
Circassian Ladies Corset and Seaside Bathing Dress, Fashion Plate from La Belle Assemblée, or Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine. SPARC Digital

The Morning Post of 1st August 1815 tells its readers what they should be wearing for the month for seaside bathing:

Sea Side Bathing Dress: This very elegant dress is composed of the newly introduced Berlin silk. It is made in the form of a pelisse, and is so contrived that the stays, petticoat, and pelisse are all put on in a few moments. A flounce of green gauze, crape, or muslin, edged with an exceedingly pretty silk trimming, ornaments the dress; which, when on, is so finished and elegant that no one could suppose it was possible to adjust it in a few moments. A Leghorn hat ornamented with a plume of straw colour feathers, and green plaid leather boots, finish this dress, which we look upon as a chef d’oeuvre in its way, since, independent of the advantage which it is to a lady to be able to dress and undress so quickly, the most fastidious belle must confess that nothing can possibly be more becoming than this Sea Side Bathing Dress. The Wellington corset, with which it is worn, is admirably adapted to display in the most easy and graceful manner the natural proportions of the shape; and the tout ensemble of this elegant and useful habit is simple, tasteful and in the highest degree appropriate.

For anyone wondering, like us, what the Wellington corset was, then the Kentish Gazette, 6 September 1814 has the answer. It was designed specifically for women who were pregnant or who had had children as it would repress that fullness which some ladies find rather troublesome in the present style of dress.

The Liverpool Mercury, in 1830, carried the following description of a new invention to aid swimmers and non swimmers to float in the sea, by the Abbé de la Chapelle which he called a ‘Scaphander’.

It was a type of jacket of cork, composed of cork and fastened round the boy by means of leather thongs, which pass between the thighs and over the shoulders. That the body of the swimmer may be in equilibrium with an equal volume of water, a jacket of this kind ought to contain TEN POUNDS OF CORK. It is added that the inventor, with this cumbrous jacket on, could hold a bottle and glass in his hands when in the water (now this is just what I need!).

The Bathing Place at Ramsgate by Benjamin West
The Bathing Place at Ramsgate by Benjamin West; Yale Center for British Art

19 thoughts on “Regency Swimwear

  1. I’ve seen another bathing dress which was calf length with pantalettes, 1815 IIRC and I’ve been having trouble tracking it down. I have a pic of it somewhere
    Gottit! La Belle Assemblee 1810 September – and the pantalettes described as trowsers of French Cambric. labelled on print as evening wear, the blurb has it as walking dress for the seaside
    Also La Belle Assemblee, July 1815 a dress described as a bathing dress. I could not see what was special about this but I am guessing it was again easy to get out of. This really makes it clear why there were bathing dresses which weren’t … well, bathing dresses!
    the shifts worn for actual bathing in the first pic and some in the last appear to be brown fabric of some kind, presumably to stop them being so transparent as a normal fine cotton or linen shift? the lady getting undressed looks to be wearing hers underneath, nothing changes … and I’d not want to wear a hired bathing costume nowadays with fewer germs about.

    Interesting to see some girls skinny dipping, if more gingerly than the group of boys in the last pic


    1. Sarah Murden

      I think they did use the bathing machines as a means to skinny dip, they could get undressed and then straight into the water without begin seen, but then the idea of some sort of swimwear came along for modesty.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve swum in a nightdress and pj bottoms and sweater, socks and plimsolls for the top water safety award; I’ve also swum in clothes to lifesave someone also fully clad. It isn’t easy, but when the fabric clings, it’s not as hard as you might think. it’s the shoes which weigh you down, and any overgarment. Getting undressed in deep water, especially getting a heavy woollen sweater off, now that is hard. If I was swimming in a shift, I’d want to sew lead shot [not a lot] in the bottom hem to stop it rising up and hampering me.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. the current projects are making a period bra based on museum pics of the ones that wrap around, and I already hit a snag; I am too large a lady to not have it gathered into a band on the bottom. However, that’s ok. And the other thing is the hat I just bought in a charity shop which is begging to become a bonnet. I suspect that any complex underwear would be dispensed with for the swimming costume.
          I’d as soon have the lawn ‘trowsers’ and a shorter shift to swim in however.

          Liked by 2 people

  2. Am I right in reading that they shared bathing suits!? Good Lord! I’m surprised that the lack of restraints offered from the bathing suit didn’t make it into mainstream fashion. or did they? I came across a ‘bathing machine’ used as a rudimentary watch-house in an old Jewish Cemetery in Brighton when researching for my bodysnatchers although unfortunately I have no dates or further information.


    1. Sarah Murden

      Yes, it certainly sounds as if they shared bathing suits, so that would be how the concept of owning your own came about – would you want to share such an intimate piece of clothing? – yuk! I can imagine that bathing machines would actually have made pretty good watch-houses 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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      1. Sarah, it’s not necessarily a typo. Originally they were called ‘reticules’ from the fact that early ones were net, and it comes from the Latin for net, however, the similarity in sound led to many men referring to them as ‘ridicules; thinking them ridiculous little things, and the name stuck as a term for the reticule. It’s slightly derogatory

        Liked by 1 person

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