Published: February 19, 2008
Just in time for summer, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art will present “Making a Splash: American Beach Fashions, 1850‱920,” February 23⁊uly 13. The exhibition complements the concurrent international loan exhibition, “Impressionists by the Sea,” which closes May 11.
During the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the beach was a summertime playground for day-trippers and vacationers seeking relief from the heat and dirt of the city. Resort hotels, luxurious villas and amusement palaces sprouted along the coastlines of Europe and the United States to cater to tourists.
Sea bathing changed from a therapy treatment to a health-giving recreation, although swimming was not yet considered appropriate for females. Women rattled about in “bathing machines” that discreetly carried them into the ocean, where they would venture out with a rope tethered around their waists, or they waded in shallow water.
A “water cure” outfit and a gymnasium suit, both of which feature pantaloons or bloomers to protect a woman’s modesty, open the exhibition. Such styling was the precursor to the woman’s bathing costume.
Because promenading along the beach was a popular activity, “Making a Splash” is arranged as a stroll on the boardwalk. The dresses and parasols on view, dating from the 1850s through the 1910s, resemble those of fashionable ladies in paintings by Boudin and Monet.
Among the delightful and rare apparel are a girl’s bathing costume, two boy’s sailor suits, and two men’s swimsuits from the turn-of-the-last century (trunks alone were not permitted in public until the 1930s). The exhibition closes as women’s silhouettes undergo a radical change in the early Twentieth Century, exemplified by tuniclike, leg-revealing bathing outfits.
“Making a Splash” has been organized by guest curator Lynne Z. Bassett, an independent scholar who is a former curator at Old Sturbridge Village and Historic Northampton.
The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art is at 600 Main Street. For more information, www.wadsworthatheneum.org or 860-278-2670.
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