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Riviera Style

27 May 2015 | Imogen Greenberg

Riviera Style, the new exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum, offers a window on to the seaside, in the heart of London.

In the classic Bond Film, Dr No (1962), Ursula Andress simultaneously became the quintessential Bond Girl and beach girl when she emerged from the sea in a dazzling white bikini. This became the defining fashion moment of the 60s, and the bikini became the go-to beach fashion. In 2001, the item even sold for £41,125 at auction.

A new exhibition, Riviera Style at the Fashion and Textile museum takes a closer look at the rise of the bikini, charting how fashion and textiles have changed in the last hundred years of beach fashion. The exhibition is divided in to five time periods, which break up the changes in fashion.

It begins in the late 19th century, when the seaside became popular for health reasons. Exhibition curator Dr Christine Boydell says ‘Days at the beach began as a health cure when sea air was prescribed by doctors in the Victorian era. Before the 1920s swimming costumes were for bathing’. This changed when a trip to the seaside became as much about the sand as the sea, and the Victorian ideal of pale skin gave way to sunbathing for the perfect tanned body.

Throughout the five periods, there is a steady progress of lowering necklines and rising hemlines, until the bikini emerges as the ideal for women. The bikini remained, almost unchallenged, as the norm for women for decades. The exhibition’s wall of examples features cut-outs, bright prints, ‘wet look’ fabrics and even a trend for decorative rhinestones. But they are still largely similar in shape.

The ideal beach body was not just about fashion. It was about a lifestyle, of tanned skin and a toned body, often achieved through dieting. This was encouraged by the emergence of beauty contests, like the Bathing Beauty Queen content, later renamed Miss Great Britain, and first held in Morecombe in 1945. Women’s beach bodies were scrutinised as much as their fashion choices. They still are, as shown by the recent furore over a ‘Beach Body Ready’ poster advertising weight loss pills.

But looking at modern fashions it’s clear that the smaller the better is simply no longer the case. Fashion has turned back to the 50s and 60s cuts, and is bringing back retro prints, high waists and swimsuits. The fashion tides are turning.

The exhibition looks at men’s fashion too, showing that there was an ideal male beach body as well as female. Until the 1930s men were required by law to cover their torsos. The swimwear from the 30s and 40s for men and women looks remarkably similar. Even once men did away with the top half, the trunks have high waists, like the women’s briefs, to cover the naval. Now, men’s swimwear is a fairly standardised trunk or Speedo option, though I was surprised to find a pair of ‘Show-It Technology’ trunks from 2013 with a hidden ‘comfy cup’ for gentle support and lift. These are men’s swimwear’s answer to the push-up bra.

The exhibition also looks at changes to textiles. In the early 20th century, bathing suits were baggy and full length. These fabrics weighed heavy with sand and sea. Gradually, textiles began to incorporate elastine and lycra, and swimwear became figure-hugging and svelte, with quick-dry fabrics that didn’t absorb as much water.

It was sports that really changed the use of textiles, in search of the perfect streamlined silhouette. The Fastskin racing full-body suit made from Teflon-coated Lycra was so successful at shaving seconds off race times that it was banned after the Beijing Olympics.

There is also a larger story, beyond fashion and textile, running through the exhibition, of the rise of leisure time. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the Pay Act granted one week’s annual paid holiday. Beach resorts emerged from Blackpool to Brighton, and Southend to Skegness. On the walls of the galleries there are posters, which show how these towns marketed themselves to this emerging market. The retro colour-block prints pitch the English seaside as equivalent to the glamorous luxury of the Cote D’Azur or the French Riviera.

This exhibit works on many levels. It is about British summer holidays, and how lives began to revolve around leisure. It is about changing fashions, and ideals of the male and female body. It is about changing technology, as textiles were modernised. It’s also just a joy to look at, with retro prints in bright summer pastels.

The soundtrack of the exhibition is full of whimsical seaside songs of the 60s, including We’re All Going on a Summer Holiday. It evokes a retro ideal that’s making a comeback, with lidos popular in the capital once more, from Tooting Bec to London Fields. Plans are afoot, with a huge Kickstarter campaign, for a Lido that will float in the river Thames.

This exhibition captures a bygone era of British seaside holidays. But it also captures the popular imagination, which is giving these holidays and this style its comeback moment. It is a lovely exhibition and well worth a visit.

For more information on Riviera Style, and to book tickets, please see the Fashion and Textile Museum website. Every Wednesday and Friday at 1 pm, there is a Highlight Tour with the Museum team, included in the price of your ticket.

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