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A Little Sea Bathing Would Set me up Forever!

Sea Bathing – What was it and who did it?

During Jane Austen’s day, taking a holiday by the sea was no uncommon thing. The popularity of towns such as Brighton inspired Jane to write her last, unfinished novel, Sanditon, about a small town with big city aspirations.

The Sea air and Sea Bathing together were nearly infallible, one or the other of them being a match for every Disorder…
Sanditon, pp.329-30

Sea bathing in York in 1814
Sea bathing in York in 1814

Sea bathing itself, would prove to be an interesting experience for any young lady bold enough or ill enough to be encouraged to attempt it. Wagons, called Bathing Machines, were invented especially for the purpose, and would be drawn out into the water by sturdy women, who might then assist you down into the water where you could paddle about or swim in relative privacy, shielded from view of the shore.

A period Bathing Machine

Jane Austen’s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide and her son Hastings spent part of December 1790 through part of January 1791 at the seaside town of Margate. She wrote of her time there, as quoted from JASA’s Jane Austen at the Seaside:

I had fixed on going to London the end of this Month, but to shew You how much I am attached to my maternal duties, on being told by one of the faculty whose Skill I have much opinion of that one month’s bathing at this time of the Year was more efficacious than six at any other & that consequently my little Boy would receive the utmost benefit from my prolonging my stay here beyond the time proposed, like a most exemplary parent I resolved on foregoing the fascinating delights of the great City for one month longer … Was not this heroic? … Hastings grows much & begins to lisp english tolerably well, his education is likewise begun, his Grandmamma having succeeded in teaching him his letters. The Sea has strengthened him wonderfully & I think has likewise been of great service to myself, I still continue bathing notwithstanding the severity of the Weather & Frost & Snow which is I think somewhat courageous.

Jane Austen’s ‘Outlandish Cousin’, pp 97-99

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Dressing for the Seaside

During the Regency, seaside resorts sprang up all along the coast of England. Brighton was particularly popular due to the distinction given it by the Prince of Wales. Sidmouth, Weymouth, Lyme and even the fictitional Sanditon are all now easily recognized names which bring to mind crowds of beautifully dressed Regency ladies and gentlemen (and Officers!) enjoying a promenade by the sea.

Naturally, sea-bathing, only one of many activities to be enjoyed at a Seaside resort required its own attire (generally a simple muslin shift) but one had also to be fashionable when appearing in public at all times. The following illustrations from period fashion journals show typical “Bathing Place” attire.

Bathing Place Dress, 1810, from The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashion, and Politics. This unusual outfit features lace-trimmed pants as an undergarment that shows beneath the simple button-up-the-front dress. The laced sandals show the Greco-Roman influence on dress.

Author Stella Blum writes that the “Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics, commonly known as Ackermann’s Repository, after Rudolph Ackermann, its publisher …. first appeared in London in 1809 as a monthly publication. Although not primarily a fashion periodical, the pages it devoted to clothes were valid fashion plates since they were meant to inform the ladies of the latest styles and to serve as a dressmaker’s guide. By the time it ceased operations in 1829, the magazine had included some 450 fashion prints.”


Seaside Bathing Dress, 1815, from La Belle Assemblee, or Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine Addressed Particularly to the Ladies, 1806-1868. It is unclear to me if this dress is simply to be worn to the bathing machine, which can be seen in the lower left of the picture, or actually into the sea. Most likely the former, since the bathing machines acted as changing rooms as well. Note the odd green and white slippers that match the dress, which is purple with green trim.

According to Pauline Weston Thomas notes, “Even now, La Belle Assemblee is considered a mine of fascinating information about the literary and artistic world of the era, plus other contents of hints and tips to achieve perfection in all areas. Fashion information was but a small part of the overall magazine.After 1832 when the magazine changed hands, it was renamed as The Court Magazine and La Belle Assemblée. The plates issued for the next 23 years are thought inferior.”


Morning Dress, 1797, from Nicholas Heideloff’s Gallery of Fashion. These ladies have gone out on a windy morning for a walk. They too have on bonnets, and one woman wears a shawl over her morning dress. These ladies are at a fashionable seaside resort; note the bathing machines in the bottom left corner of the image. When one reads Frances Burney’s Camilla of 1796, this is a useful image to keep in mind for the scenes that occur at seaside resorts.

“[S]imple dresses with their slightly rising waistlines are reflected in the most famous of all English fashion magazines, Heideloff’s Gallery of Fashion which appeared from 1794 to 1802. The Gallery claimed to be a record `of all the most fashionable and elegant Dresses in vogue,’ rather than a blueprint for the future; it aimed to show the taste and restraint to be seen in English costume, rather than the wild exaggerations of French dress …. The result was often a compromise between the `elegant simplicity’ of ancient Greek dress, which the Gallery admired, and the English attraction towards such features as Vandyke trimming, Tudor ruffs and various kinds of applied decoration.”

Explore our costume section at our online giftshop for dresses, patterns and more!

Images and descriptions courtesy of Cathy Decker’s Regency Fashion Page.