Style Cycles: British Seaside

The seaside holiday was a marvellous opportunity for dressing up… Holiday makers could leave behind their drab office suits or factory overalls and go to the sea looking like movie stars. – Sun, Sea and Sand: The Great British Seaside Holiday

‘The Sirens of the Seaside,’ Punch, 1882

I realise that many of my posts recently have focused on the sea, and for this I make no apology. Growing up by the coast has fuelled an adult obsession with all things nautical, and when the fashion tide washes in my favour, who am I to ignore it. Afterall, the seaside has been inspiring artists for centuries from Turner to Tracey Emin, so it should come as no surprise that it’s cast its spell this season on designers from Holly Fulton and Craig Lawrence to Daks and Mulberry. Naomi of Vintage Secret has been extolling the benefits of trading the city for the seaside in her inspiration post on Portsmouth, and now the sun has finally been shining the time is ripe for a time-honoured trip to the beach. The fading glory of British seaside towns is evident in the colours of Pleasure Beaches that are bright and garish yet muted with age, and when replicated to true effect in sundresses and raincoats they leave us with the taste of salt on our tongues, the sound of seagulls and funfairs and the smell of candyfloss and cockles.

Blackpool Tower in the mist, February 2012; Margate houses, March 2011
Whitstable July 2009
Lowestoft on carnival day 2009
Mulberry S/S 2012

The Neapolitan ice cream colours at Mulberry took us on a seventies day out at the British beach, complete with balloon animals and pink lemonade at the show. Reference was made to the perennial presence of rainfall with a plethora of raincoats on show.

The British love of holidaying by the coast really kicked off in the Victorian age, when visits to the seaside became increasingly popular. Doctors and other medical officials throughout the 18th century advocated the health-giving qualities of ‘taking the water’ and the leisured classes duly responded. Eventually this spa-culture expanded to a greater number of coastal towns which became the first resorts. The evolution of rail travel throughout the first half of the 19th century increased excursions to the sea – and the demographic mix that were able to go – and previous discourses of health and wellbeing were gradually superseded by the lure of pleasure – piers, palaces, winter gardens and aquariums – which all existed to attract the growing numbers of day-trippers to the shoreline, as well as those who could afford to stay for longer. By the time of the 1871 Public Holiday Act, the middle classes – and increasingly the working classes – had more leisure time and financial independence than ever before. Recreational holidays were becoming big business.

Victorian seaside fashions as satirised in Punch, 1870s

The resorts, as they evolved from fashionable spa towns, were reliant on glamour and fashion as prominent selling points. Piers became increasingly important at resorts as architectural innovations and centres of pleasure. Not only did they provide a picturesque platform for the ostentatious display of fashionable attire so indispensable to Victorian society, but they also allowed the landlubber a taste of ‘life on the ocean waves’ with no prospect of danger or an embarrassing bout of sea-sickness. They became the forerunner to catwalks as the season’s finest attire was regularly paraded across the water.

 The promenade, a significant fixture of seaside visits, was an important aspect of the exuberance and frivolity of coastal behaviour. Plymouth Promenade from the Illustrated London News, 1882

For the middle class family, the annual trip to the coast soon became de rigueur for the maintenance of a fashionable lifestyle. As the holiday became increasingly accessible to all classes, the ‘season’ shifted to September and even October, so the upper-middle strata of society could avoid the holiday throngs around the summer peak, when workers’ Wakes weeks and newly inaugurated Bank Holidays occurred. The seaside promenade was the perfect platform upon which to perform one’s fashionability, and a certain flamboyance was allowed that would have been denounced as tasteless in urban fashion centres.

There are the young ladies, perfectly decorous and well-behaved in London, who give themselves up to abandon on piers and other public places.  –  The Queen magazine, 1900

At the turn of the 20th century, Music Hall star Marie Lloyd capitalised on the links between fashion and the lascivious behaviour that often went on at the coast. She hinted at the physical pleasures that could be found at the seaside, with lashings of double entendre thrown in for good measure:

When I take my morning promenade, Quite a fashion card, On the promenade. Now I don’t mind nice boys staring hard, If it satisfies their desire – Marie Lloyd. Read the rest of the lyrics here.
Blackpool Tower; circus punks at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, February 2008

Blackpool is one of my favourite places in the world, and I’m lucky enough to go nearly every year for the Showzam Festival of Circus, Magic and New Variety. The famous Pleasure Beach started life in 1896, built as an American-style amusement park by a man who had recently visited Coney Island. In 1904 it became ‘Pleasure Beach Ltd,’ and it’s now run by the fourth generation of the same family. They make the most incredible costumes on site for their shows including Hot Ice, and they also create pieces to sell to other productions – even Betty Legs Diamond of Funny Girls-fame often orders her costumes from the Pleasure Beach.

Blackpool Pleasure Beach Tunnel of Love (River Caves) September 2009
Blackpool February 2012: Pleasure Beach, carpet inside the Winter Gardens, River Caves at the Pleasure Beach

‘The River Caves of the World’ was the second major attraction that opened at the Pleasure Beach in 1905, and it’s still running today. It’s no wonder that by the end of the 1930s Blackpool was visited by more than 7 million people each year. And of course the 1930s were also the decade that popularised the holiday camp as the first Butlin’s opened in 1936 on Easter Sunday in Skegness. Billy Butlin was a former travelling showman who was dissatisfied with the traditional boarding house system of seaside trips. He had a vision of the camp being a resort in itself, somewhere modern and luxurious yet affordable – somewhere you could have fun whatever the weather, where you weren’t booted out into the rain during the day as you were by militant landladies at boarding houses. Inspired by the movie star lifestyle as shown in fan magazines, Butlin’s buildings combined functional white concrete and chrome with mock-Tudor style chalets to create a truly British version of an American fantasy world of liners and Grand Hotels. Mass entertainment was the order of the day; even the motto – ‘Our true intent is all for your delight’ – is a quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Billy Butlin insisted that he found it on a fairground organ.

Female workers at Butlin’s wearing Marilyn Monroe face masks as they parade in their swimsuits in May 1952 from The Guardian; Filey Butlin’s by night found at Butlin’s Memories
The Billy Butlin Story found at Butlin’s Memories; a honeymooning couple at Saltdean Butlin’s in 1957 from The Guardian
Margate March 2011 
Martin Parr, ‘The Last Resort’ series, 1983-85. Found at Peanut Butter Thoughts. Blackpool Tower postcard
Broken Hearts shot in Gt Yarmouth by Neil Massey; make yourself a mermaid at Louis Tussaud’s (now Madame Tussaud’s) in Blackpool, 2008. Louis was the great-grandson of Marie Tussaud, and he opened wax museums in Atlantic City, Florida and Great Yarmouth as well as Blackopool.
Martin Parr, ‘The Last Resort’ series, 1983-85. Found at Chris Beetle; Great Yarmouth postcard
Broken Hearts shot in Gt Yarmouth by Neil Massey; Margate March 2011; Broken Hearts shot in Gt Yarmouth by Neil Massey
Shelter where TS Elliot is said to have composed part 3 of The Wasteland in 1921; ‘I never stopped loving you’ in pink neon by Tracey Emin – a love letter to her home town
Martin Parr, ‘The Last Resort’ series, 1983-85. Found at Peanut Butter Thoughts
Margate March 2011
Broken Hearts shot in Gt Yarmouth by Neil Massey; Margate March 2011
The Golden Mile, Blackpool, February 2008

Fashion has always been an important aspect of life at the beach, from the Victorian and Edwardian promenades to pyjama dressing in the 30s and the brilliant 50s swimming cap fashions below from British Pathé.

Fish and chips in Margate, March 2011; Blackpool Tower, February 2008
Rodnik S/S 2012: fish and chips dress found at the Rodnik Band, all others found at Zeitgeist

I love how literally Philip Colbert of Rodnik takes a theme. His S/S 2012 collection, ‘Save the Sea’ also helps to support the Environmental Justice Foundation.

Margate shell lady; shelter where TS Elliot is said to have composed part 3 of The Wasteland in 1921. Margate, March 2011

The Margate shell lady by Ann Carrington is said to be Turner’s landlady and mistress, Mrs Booth. Turner went to school in Margate and returned many times as an adult as he found the light to be incomparable for sketching and painting seascapes. More than 100 of his works were inspired by this coast, which in turn was the inspiration behind the Turner Contemporary gallery which is situated on the site of the guest house he frequented, run by his beloved Mrs Booth.

Holly Fulton S/S 2012

Holly Fulton was inspired by Margate for S/S 2012, featuring motifs of shells and coral as well as an aquarium print. You can see pictures of the amazing shell grotto in Margate in this post.

Daks S/S 2012 found at Grazia

Daks was inspired by a British seaside town in the 50s, complete with inclement weather and full-skirted silhouettes. You can practically hear ‘good morning, campers’ and the faint cry of ‘hi de hi, ho de ho!’

Blackpool beach, September 2009; Broken Hearts shot in Gt Yarmouth by Neil Massey
Margate March 2011
Craig Lawrence S/S 2012 found at Dazed Digital

Craig Lawrence used sand as the starting point for his collection, and was inspired by the photographs of Martin Parr and the town of Felixstowe where he took his childhood holidays. The use of Swarovski yarn gives a faint shimmer which purposefully hints at mother-of-pearl and the twinkle of the sea itself.

British seaside, I salute you.

Come to the first Theatre of Fashion In Conversation event at the V&A Theatre and Performance Galleries, Friday 22nd June at 7pm. Featuring Donatella Barbieri and Tony-nominated costume designer Nicky Gillibrand, the series will explore the intersection between fashion and performance. More information HERE. FREE but an invite is required: please email if you would like to reserve a space.

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