With the summer approaching, beachwear is a topic on the minds of many blogs. Fear not, I am going to spare you my opinion on bikini vs swimsuit; in fact this post is more about suit versus swimsuit. Or, to put things a different way, why we look at so many seaside posters with too much of a modern eye.
Posters like this, for example.
For an audience today, seeing this poster from the distance of fifty years or more, what is being advertised is the joy of Margate beach. And this is true, except that we are missing something very crucial. These people are being daringly modern and middle class, not just in their choice of sunglasses but in their entire choice of beach wear. Because when we take a look at actual people on Margate beach in the 1950s, they look rather different.
Children and teenagers might wear swimming costumes, but everyone else wears clothes, and quite a lot of them too.
This wasn’t a peculiarity of Margate beach either, smart formal was the dress code up and down the country in the 1950s.
In Filey not even the children got swimsuits it seems.
Now, there are some interesting reasons as to why this might be. Back in the 1950s, your smartest clothes didn’t automatically equal ‘working clothes’. Working clothes were grimy, hard-wearing and, well, blue-collar overalls. So your suit was something that you could relax into, an alternative, a sign that you were no longer at work. More than that, it was a status symbol which proved that you could afford clothes that went beyond the simply practical. In some ways, the suit and smart dresses were the sartorial equivalent of the ‘best parlour’ at home: not necessarily the best use of resources and often overly formal, but essential if you wished to be respectable.
Paradoxically, though, the suit on the beach is at the same time a sign of being working class, of not having unlimited means. Because while it may be telling people that the wearer owns more than just their working clothes, it also indicates that they don’t have the means to afford ‘leisure’ clothing either. These well-dressed beach goers occupy a very particular place in the British class structure, and their clothes speak of it.
All of which puts a very different slant on posters like these.
These families are not average, they are modern and aspirational.
And look at this trio, they are so upmarket that they not only have swimsuits but leisure clothes as well.
Mind you, Morecambe always fancied itself as an upper-class resort. Although not so posh that everyone was expected to have a cozzie.
The family here are quite happy to conform to the cultural norms of the time, although I do think he must be quite hot in that tank top.
In fact, when I start to peer at the 1950s holiday posters, there is more clothes wearing going on than I had expected.
All of which may help us to look at these posters differently, and so it should, but that’s not the half of it. Because if the swimsuit wearers of the 1950s were middle class and modern.
What does this then make Tom Purvis’s swimsuit wearers of the 1930s?
Very posh and very modern indeed, that’s what. They can afford swimwear at a time when, it seems from the photographs, most people went to the beach in their overcoat.
There are, of course, so many signifiers of modernity in a Tom Purvis poster that one could write an entire thesis about them: the love of the outdoors, the new fashion for getting a sun tan, the flat bright colours – I could go on almost indefinitely, and probably will some other day. Nonetheless I do think the swimming costumes would have been very striking at the time and would have made the poster dramatic and innovative in a way that we simply cannot appreciate today without putting some thought into it.
For me, though, the posters that most benefit from this reappraisal are Fortunino Matania’s posters for Southport, which until now I’ve considered to be rather dull workings out of Art Deco which fetch too much money at auction.
Just look at these people. They have a lido, modern hats, swimming costumes and shorts; they are wearing not enough clothes while outdoors. In short, they could not be more fashionable, upper class and modern if they swanned up to the swimming pool in a Rolls Royce car.
Of course they’re saving that for the next poster, when they get to the hotel.
Southport, like Morecambe, rather fancied itself as being a cut above some other resorts (not least its near neighbour Blackpool) so Matania wasn’t the only poster designer to dress it up in the costumes of high fashion. Here’s Alfred Lambart’s take on a very similar theme.
You might have thought that trippers from Liverpool might have lowered the exclusive tone somewhat, but then who am I to say?
If you want to judge for yourself, this is what Southport Lido looked like in reality; I think there is actually quite a lot of clothes-wearing going on beyond the front row.
Further proof of how exciting and different these swimsuit posters would have seemed comes in the form of other posters of a similar period, which were very happy to show beach goers wearing a more normal amount of clothes, at least by inter-war standards.
This one is by Dame Laura Knight, proving that you can be modern even without swimsuits for all.
But this is my total favourite, by Stanislaus Brien.
This is not just on account of the fact that all the adults are fully covered in smart clothes and hats, but also because the beach is full, crammed with families and children and grandparents. In fact it’s the only poster I’ve ever seen which bears any resemblance to photographs of a day out at the beach between the wars. And yet it is done in the style of Leger: modern, but clothed and truthful. And, it has to be said, pretty much unique in the poster record. I’m not sure it looks that enticing to modern eyes.
But it is our modern eyes that are the problem. Because just as we fail to see swimsuits as daring and signifiers of the future, we shrink with horror at a crowded beach. (Why the beaches were so crowded is another story for another day, but one which is intimately connected to the railwayness of railway posters.) And in doing so, we completely fail to see these posters, both from the 1930s and the 1950s, as they were intended at the time. Does that matter? In the end, perhaps not really, especially if you simply want an amusing print to hang on the wall. But if we do take the time to see what they might have meant in their own time, how much more interesting they become.